Delayed gratification (a very important intrapersonal core life skill) is a somewhat fancy term, but all it is, is the ability to refrain from taking a smaller reward now in favour of obtaining a greater reward later. It is a simple concept, but its implications in terms of the future success of a child are staggering. Delayed gratification is at the heart of many core life skills, such as self-motivation, self-control, self-discipline, self-worth, self-confidence, persistence and restraint. Research which began in the 1960s, has shown that the levels of delayed gratification in pre-school children is a surprisingly good predictor of how well they will succeed in their adult life.
Children aged four or five with good abilities to delay gratification will, as teenagers, get better scores in school, and have better social and cognitive skills. As adults, they will have a lower body mass index, better self-worth, be more efficient at pursuing their goals, cope better with stress and frustration, be better at maintaining close relationships, reach higher levels of education, be more likely to pursue and obtain long-term goals and be less likely to indulge in risky drug and alcohol use.
This may all seem surprising at first, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. The ability to delay gratification is a learned behaviour, but it is one that results in a re-structuring of the brain so that it seeks rewards not in short-term impulsive gains, but by working towards long-term goals. Adults who were able to delay gratification as children have higher functioning in the parts of their brains linked to self-control, effective problem solving, creative thinking and control of impulsive behaviour. In contrast, children with a poor ability to delay gratification will become adults with more activity in the deeper, more primitive parts of their brains linked to desire, pleasure and addiction. Effectively, children with good abilities to delay gratification end up with brains that can put the brakes on more primitive drives that can lead to the types of impulsive behaviours that will get them into trouble as adults. This means that delayed gratification results in a brain structure which is the keystone on which many other core life skills and actions required to succeed are built.
Now, you might think that the ability of a child to delay gratification well or poorly is innate, but it isn’t. Instead, it seems to be a behaviour that is learned very early in life (which is what leads to the confusion). In addition, the learning is passive rather than active, and they absorb the behaviour from their environment without them, or us, ever realising it. Indeed, one of the strongest drivers linked to the development of delayed gratification is the behaviour of the adults in a young child’s life. If parents try to over-control their child’s life from an early age (and we’re talking about toddlers here!), especially if it is in a way that is insensitive to the child’s own needs, then this damages the child’s ability to develop its own self-control, which is, in turn, the basis for delayed gratification and all its subsequent benefits in adult life.
There is another important factor too, this is whether a child grows up in an environment where they can trust the adults who surround them. Even from early childhood, kids quickly learn whether they can trust adults to follow up on their promises or not, and if a child learns that promises for delayed gratification are often made, but rarely kept, then they will learn they should always grab a reward now, no matter how small or insignificant, because the greater later reward will never appear. Thus, the roots of a poor ability to delay gratification most frequently lie in the fact that children have grown up feeling unable to trust the adults who form their world. This is one of the reasons that key parental skills include keeping your word and being punctual, for a lack of these skills are exactly what will damage a child’s ability to trust adults.
Luckily, the ability to delay gratification is not a fixed characteristic, and we can learn to improve our ability to delay gratification. The earlier in our lives this is done, the easier it is do to it, but even adults can improve their abilities, if they really want to. How? Well, what you need to do is learn how to cool the ‘Now’ impulses in your brain, and heat up the ‘Later’ ones. At the heart of doing this is developing effective If-Then plans. These are plans as to what we will do in specific situations, so If this happens, Then I’ll do this. For example, an If-Then plan for someone who has a problem controlling how much they eat might be, If I find myself in the cake aisle of the supermarket, Then I’ll turn around and walk straight out the door. This pre-prepared plan means that you can decide what you are going to do before your ‘Now’ impulses try to hijack your brain when you encounter a specific stimulus.
However, as well as developing effective If-Then plans, you need to also change the way you think about the results of the If, and try to re-wire your brain so that is sees it not as a reward but as something bad. This is not easy to do, but its eminently possible for anyone to achieve.
So, how do we encourage the development of good abilities to delay gratification in our children? Well, first and foremost, we can keep the stress in their lives to a minimum. This means providing them with a safe, nurturing environment without conflict between adults (and that includes arguing and shouting!) You can also help them develop distraction techniques so that they learn to shift their focus from feeling distressed to concentrating on other stimuli and activities. This will, in turn, help them develop self-distraction techniques that are the first building blocks of delayed gratification. It is also important that your child learns to trust you, and that future promised rewards will actually materialise if they wait for them. Most importantly, however, you, and the other adults in your child’s life, must model the behaviours that you wish to see in your child. You need to show them that you can control your own emotions and your own actions, that you can resist temptation and wait for the greater reward, that stressful events can be dealt with calmly and without resorting to hot-headed out-bursts. In short, in front of your child, you need to be the adult that you hope they will turn into. After all, you cannot expect them to do as you say, when you don’t do it yourself!
Further Information About The Importance Of Teaching Your Child How To Delay Gratification
The best source of information about delayed gratification is a book called The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel (Corgi Books, ISBN: 978-0-552-16886-1). He is the originator of most of the scientific research on delayed gratification and has studied it since the 1960s. You can find our review of this book here, and you can purchase it here (for UK-based parents) or here (for USA-based parents).
Alternatively, you can check out this TedEx talk which outlines the basic information:
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.
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