Core Life Skill: Delayed Gratification

What Is It?

Delayed gratification is the ability to forego a small reward that is available now, for a greater one that is only available in the future if you don’t take what is on offer now. It is also known as self-control. It is a critical intrapersonal core skill for those who wish to raise a child to become a successful, happy adult.

Why Is It Important?

Delayed gratification is important because it is the key to developing self-motivation, persistence, long-term planning, academic achievement and good financial management. It has been shown that the level of success an adult achieves in life can be predicted from the strength of their ability to delay gratification at four or five years old. Good delayed gratification abilities in children also leads to adults who are better able to maintain personal relationships, less likely to become obese, less likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol, earn more money and go further in education. In short, children with good delayed gratification skills are much more likely to become happy, successful adults than those who have poor delayed gratification skills.

What age should your child start developing it?

Our ability to delay gratification is not innate, and it is a behaviour that we learn. Delayed gratification should start to appear around the age of three, and while children will vary greatly for any given age, the greatest changes in the ability to delay gratification occur between the ages of three and seven. The better the delayed gratification skills that a child has on entering school, the better they will most likely do, so it is a good idea to ensure that this is the case. You can measure your child’s ability to delay gratification by doing what is known as The Marshmallow Test (although you need to make sure the reward is something that your child really likes, and not necessarily marshmallows). The way it works is that you offer the child a reward, such as a marshmallow and tell them that if they can resist eating it until you get back, they can have two. It is important that you emphasise that it is up to them what they do (so don’t order them not to eat it until you get back). You then leave the room for a period of time and see what happens when you return. You can see children taking the marshmallow test in the video below.

How can you encourage your child to develop and enhance this skill?

Delayed gratification abilities can be encouraged by playing games that require self-control and that enhance working memory (as there seems to be a relationship between these two elements). These types of games need to be played at least three times a week to have the greatest impact. There are many possible variations, but examples of good games for working on these skills include:

Red Light, Green Light: When you call out Green Light, your child can move around, but when you call out Red Light, they must freeze instantly and stay frozen until you say Green Light again. You can enhance the effectiveness of this game by switching over the two commands half way through.

Simon Says: You call out commands, and your child has to follow them, but only when you precede the command by the words Simon Says. The game is over when they do a command when they shouldn’t, or don’t do a command when they should. Again, the effectiveness of this game can be enhanced by switching the rules around every now and then so that the child has to follow commands which aren’t preceded by the phrase Simon Says, and ignoring commands that are. This is a game that you can play outside, in the house, or even in the car (but make sure it doesn’t affect your concentration!)

The Observation Game: While the previous two games were about following rules and resisting actions when you need to, this game is about increasing working memory. Find a small tray and place a range of diverse objects on it. Cover the tray and put it in front of your child. Remove the cover and tell them they have twenty seconds to remember all the objects. Once the twenty seconds are up, cover the tray and ask your child to tell you every object they can remember. If you are playing with several children, they can take it in turns to say an object, with each one dropping out when they cannot correctly name an object on the tray.

The President’s Cat: While The Observation Game requires some preparation and cannot easily be played on the move, The President’s Cat can be played anywhere. This game is played by coming up with a list of attributes for the president’s cat. The first must start with A, the second B and so on through the alphabet. Start by saying ‘The President’s cat is a … (and then add in an attribute beginning with A). Your child goes next, and repeats the opening phrase and the first attribute before adding their own beginning with B. This continues with you each taking turns until someone misses a previously mentioned attribute in the list. Played regularly, this will help to increase working memory and focus, both of which contribute to the ability to delay gratification.

Simon: Simon is a simple electronic game you may well remember for your childhood. It flashes a sequence of lights that you have to remember and copy in order to move onto the next level. At each level, the sequence gets longer and will continue until a mistake is made. UK-based parents can purchase this game here, while US-based parents can purchase this game here. Alternatively, you can download a Simon app from here (For Android devices), here (for UK Apple IOS devices), or here (for US Apple IOS devices).

However, as well as playing these types of games with your child, it is also important that you provide a good model for your child in terms of showing them delayed gratification in practice. This means that you need to be careful to control your impulses and behave appropriately at all times in front of your child.

In addition, it has been shown that children who do not trust the adults in their lives to actually give them promised future rewards will generally have poor delayed gratification skills. This is because they have learned that future promised rewards are never delivered so they might as well take what is offered now (as it is a certainty that they will actually get it). A child only needs to be disappointed in this way a small number of times to learn that delayed gratification is pointless. This means that it is essential that you always keep your word with your child and that you always follow up on promises of rewards that you make (and that you never remove promised rewards for delayed gratification as punishments for other actions!)

Additional Information:

There is plenty of information available on delayed gratification, why it is important and what you can do to help your child develop it. These include:

1. The Marshmallow Test: This book by Walter Mischel is probably the best source of information on delayed gratification, and is one of our recommended reads for all parents. You can find more information about why we recommend it here, and you can purchase it here here (for UK-based parents) or here (for USA-based parents).

2. Teaching self-control: Evidence-based tips: This is a great article from about self-control and how to encourage its development in your child. To read it, click here.

3. The Marshmallow Test and why we want instant gratification: This TedEx talk from YouTube will also help you understand why delayed gratification is important:

4. Forget delayed gratification, what children really need is cognitive control: Despite what the title of this article implies, it isn’t really anti-delayed gratification. Instead, it is emphasising that delayed gratification, while important, isn’t the be-all-and-end-all that some people might claim. You can read this article here.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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