The ability to delay gratification has been shown in various studies to be a strong predictor of academic success, even more so than IQ. Can parents help nurture this ability in children? Yes! But it takes more than a didactic approach. Many parents are probably familiar with the famous marshmallow experiment where young children were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two if they could wait 15 minutes. It’s helpful to recall that the original experiment focused not on whether the children could wait but rather on what strategies helped them to wait. Rochester University researchers later conducted a variation on the experiment to test how prior experiences affected wait time. They first conditioned the children with kept or broken promises of better art supplies and bigger stickers if they waited. In the marshmallow test that followed, children who were rewarded as promised for waiting were more likely to exhibit self-restraint than those who were let down after having waited. With that in mind, here are three tips for helping children learn the good habit of delaying gratification:
Mind Over Matter: Encourage younger children to redirect their mental focus to something else, preferably something pleasant, while they wait. As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. Playing outdoors is usually an effective way to change one’s frame of mind. Another approach is to help kids put their natural creativity and boundless imagination to use in thinking up ways to ignore or recast in a negative light the source of immediate satisfaction. If your child wants to play video games before finishing homework, what if he pretended that the PlayStation were really a portal used by savage aliens seeking to conquer planet Earth, and the only way to close the gateway and thwart the evil empire was to finish his homework first?
Give and Keep Your Word: Set age-appropriate rewards for exhibiting self-restraint, including interim milestones for longer-term goals. Establishing a savings account is a wonderful example of a longer-term project. Not only can it help foster self-control, but you can also use it to help build basic arithmetic skills when children are young and to teach about compound interest when they are older. Most importantly, follow through on whatever you promised.
Walk the Walk: Model the desired behavior by sharing with your children when and why you delay gratification as well as the net positive gains you accrue from your self-restraint. For example, resist the urge to grab fast food when you’re out so that you have room for a healthful meal at home and feel healthy afterwards. Or skip buying the sale shoes that you only sort-of like and save up for the pair you absolutely love!