Strategies to Teach Children Delayed Gratification

Part 1: Self-control can be learned. Here's how parents can teach it.

Posted Dec 15, 2019

Raising children today that can resist temptation and delay gratification is a bigger challenge than ever before. Temptations abound!

According to Walter Mischel, the author of the famed Stanford Marshmallow Experiment;

“The good news is that this cognitive and emotional skill set is eminently teachable, particularly early in life. It's great in preschool; it's great within the first few years of life. It's great in adolescence even. And it continues to be a skill set that can be developed even when we’re quite mature adults.”

Just how do you teach children patience? How do you teach them to resist temptation when they want it right now? How do you teach self-control? Do you want your child to be a patient postponer or an instant gratifier?

David Bredehoft
Source: David Bredehoft

When I was 10 years old, I wanted a new shiny red bicycle. I thought that the old used one my parents bought me was not good enough. Mom did a wise thing. She told me that I would have to earn it for myself. So, I became a paperboy with the goal of earning enough money to buy a new bike. The next day, my father took me to the bank and helped me start my first savings account. Here’s the secret: (1) learning to set an attainable goal, (2) seeing powerful parental models doing the same things, and (3) getting encouragement for your actions along the way!

Strategies to Teach Children Self-Control

1. Create an Environment Where Self-Control Is Consistently Rewarded.

When this happens children develop a sense of trust. Your child trusts that you, the parent, are reliable. This was clearly demonstrated in a remake of Walther Mischel's Marshmallow Experiment. Celeste Kidd conducted the experiment just like the original, except she randomly assigned children to two pre-experimental conditions: (1) unreliable or (2) reliable environment. Next, all of the children were given an art project and promised additional art supplies. In the unreliable condition, the adult returned without them and said, “I am sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all.” In the reliable condition, the children got what they were promised. Next, the researcher gave the children a sticker and told them that they could use the sticker now or wait for a larger number of stickers later. In the unreliable condition, the adult returned without the stickers as promised and said, “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other stickers after all. But why don’t you just use this one instead?” Immediately after these children were given the marshmallow task.

Guess what. “Children fail the marshmallow task when adults can not be trusted!” (See video below)

2.  Model Self-Control for Your Children. 

The first and probably the most powerful models for children are their parents. We need to not just “Talk the Talk," we also need to “Walk the Walk." For instance, I became a saver at an early age by watching my father. Each week he took me to the bank and I watched him put his check into savings. He not only showed me how to do it, he told me what he was doing and why. He told me that he and mom were saving for a car, or saving for our summer vacation. Model self-control for children and talk to them about it. You can model this by saying things like:

“I really want that cookie now, but I am going to wait until after dinner.”

“I really want those new shoes, but I really don’t need them. I’m not going to buy them.”

“This line is really long and we have been waiting for such a long time. I just need to be patient.”

Remember: Children learn from what they see you do!

3. Teach Children to Use Distractions. 

One basic lesson Walter Mischel learned from the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was that the 4-year-olds who were successful in waiting for the second marshmallow were extremely creative in coming up with ways to distract themselves from the marshmallow that was right in front of them. 

A Few Distraction Techniques That Can Be Taught:

  • Counting backward
  • Change the focus of attention to something else
  • Exercise. Get the body moving
  • Draw pictures using crayons
  • Cleaning your room

For a complete list, see A Mojo Life: Distraction Strategies, and Teaching Your Child Self-Control on Kids Health.

4. Develop and Practice "If-Then" Plans.

Making “If-then plans and practicing them with children is a specific strategy Walter Mischel researched and found to be highly successful for children who had self-regulating problems.

“What you can take from my work… is to use all the strategies I discuss—namely making “if-then” plans and practicing them. Having a whole set of procedures in place can help a child regulate what he is feeling or doing more carefully.”

In each specific situation, I like children to come up with Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. That way if Plan A doesn’t work they have two additional responses to fall back on. Then, I like to practice each plan by role-playing the situation. Try it, this really works!

5. Teach Children to Set Achievable Goals.

For 37 years, I was an academic advisor for college students. When one of my advisees failed one or more classes and was on academic probation (at or below 1.75 GPA) I would ask them, “What is your GPA goal for next semester?” Almost every student would say, “I am going to get a 4.0." My job at that point was to help them set a realistic goal. In 37 years, I had never had a student go from a 1.75 to a 4.0 in the next semester.

Me: Have you ever gotten a 4.0 before?"

Advisee: No.”

Me: “What was the best semester you have ever had?"

Advisee: “I don’t remember.

Me:Let’s take a look at your transcript.

Advisee: “OK.

Me:Two semesters ago you got a 2.1. That was the highest you have scored in college so far.

Me:Did you ever make a 4.0 in high school?"

Advisee:No, I guess not.

Me: “I really want you to be successful. One way to do this is to set challenging, but realistic goals. When you reach your goal, you succeed. Then after each success, we inch the goal a notch or two higher. Nothing succeeds like success!"

Advisee:Ok, I get it. Then my goal for next semester is 2.2. I think I can do that.

Me:You think you can do that? Will you say, I know I can make a 2.2.”

Advisee:I know I can make a 2.2!

Me:Great. I would like you to check back with me weekly to report how you are doing."

Advisee: "Ok.”

Me:But before you go, what is your plan to achieve your 2.2?

Note: I have used this same strategy successfully with children of all ages. You will need to adjust your language and goals for very young children. Sometimes very young children have difficulty thinking of reasonable goals so you may need to suggest some.

Related Articles:

Delayed Gratification in an Age of Instant Gratification

Is Your Child an Instant Gratifier or a Patient Postponer?

Strategies to Teach Children Delayed Gratification — Part 2

Do all things with Love, Grace, and Gratitude

© 2020 David J. Bredehoft

References

Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: Mastering self-control, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition. 126(1), 109-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.08.004