Science suggests that a child’s ability to resist an immediate reward and wait for one that is bigger or better can predict social, health, and educational outcomes. This concept, known as “delayed gratification,” was first outlined by a research team led by Professor Mischel at Stanford University.
The study, commonly referred to as the Marshmallow test, was conducted over a 40-year time span. It began in the 1960s, and its objective was to observe the behavior of four-year-olds when given rewards in the form of marshmallows, cookies, or pretzels.
Each child sat at a table on which the researcher placed a reward. Once presented with the reward, the child was told that if he did not eat it immediately, he would get a second reward. He was also told that if he ate his reward while the researcher was away (about 15 minutes), there would be no second reward.
Forty years later, Professor Mischel and his team conducted follow-up studies. They found that the four-year-olds who had resisted eating their marshmallows had become more successful adults exhibited by better educational, social, health, and psychological outcomes.
It would be naïve to believe that success in adult life depends essentially on “not eating the marshmallow.” The marshmallow test, however, has stood the test of time: Children are more likely to experience positive outcomes when they are able to concentrate, overcome distractions, and have learned to keep their eyes on the prize.
In other words, children who practice self-control become adults with better self-control.
Children, however, are notorious for impulsive behavior. Although some children are better than others at delaying gratification, most children would rather have immediate rewards. A recent study has found that delaying gratification can be taught. The study suggests that interventions in early childhood can help teach kids to reduce impulsivity.
Here are some evidence-based tips to limit impulsive behavior:
Keep your promises
In one variation of the Stanford study, children did not get the rewards promised even after waiting the specified period. In follow-up studies, these children were less likely to delay gratification.
The lesson learned here is that if children are presented with reliable experiences, they learn the rewards are worth waiting for. Only make promises you can keep.
If you love chocolate and you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to keep chocolate out of sight. The same is true when it comes to delayed gratification. “Cooling strategies” can help control behavior.
In the Marshmallow test, some of the children who were able to delay gratification did so by distracting themselves. They sang songs, covered their eyes, or imagined that the reward was less attractive than it really was.
Other studies have found that, from age five, children are able to distract themselves in order to delay gratification. If you would like your child to watch less TV, for example, proposing other activities to distract him from TV can be an effective strategy.
Show an abstract version of the reward
Several variations of the Marshmallow test have found that when an abstract version of the reward is visible, children are more likely to delay gratification. In other words, showing your child a picture of the reward rather than the reward itself is likely to be more effective in helping her delay gratification.
Dangling the reward before your child, on the other hand, is likely to backfire.
Try delay discounting with younger kids
Delay discounting is likely to be more effective for young children who are notoriously bad at delaying gratification.
Delay discounting is about proposing smaller and more immediate rewards rather than larger, delayed rewards. The success of delay discounting with young kids is linked to the fact that, when delays are too long, these children are more likely to view the reward as undesirable.
Make the reward worth it
To teach your child about delay gratification, the ultimate reward must be worth it for him. Rewards don’t necessarily have to be material rewards. They can come in the form of special moments spent together, family outings, privileges at home, or more time granted to do something he loves.
Take it one day at a time
Teaching your child to be less impulsive takes time. Don’t rush it, but be consistent. Choose the strategies that work best for both of you and stick with those.
Show them how
As always, we are our children’s greatest teachers. The best way to teach our children about patience and delayed gratification is to model those qualities ourselves.