Teaching Your Kids to Delay Gratification

My very first post on this website discussed a “Key to Success in Life,” delayed or deferred gratification. One of the comments on that post asked the 64 dollar question: How do you teach your children to delay gratification? I responded that it was too involved an answer to give in comment form, but that I would write about it in a later post. Here it is: some thoughts on teaching our kids to delay gratification.

First, let’s recognize that some children are more naturally disposed to delay their own gratification. Personality differences from birth may make one child more likely to save dessert for last or eat dessert first, without your doing anything to influence them. The dessert-saving child may seem more naturally inclined to save money and get their homework done before playing, demonstrating an ability to postpone their pleasure and fun. But we don’t have to give up on the kids that are more inclined to eat dessert first.

Consider some of the following tools for teaching delayed gratification:

Help children articulate and visualize the benefits. You will have to lead out, but eventually, they will become more accustomed to looking beyond the immediate gain of instant gratification to the greater long-term benefits of postponement.

Help children keep the focus that as they grow up, they will be the ones to choose whether or not they can enjoy the great benefits and successes available to those who delay gratification. Although we necessarily limit some of our children’s choices, they need to know that we are trying to train them for the time when the choice will be completely theirs. They don’t have to exercise this kind of self-control. Many people don’t. But those who don’t will ultimately give up the greatest rewards available in this life and the next. And the choice will be theirs, as agents, not victims.

Help children become more tolerant of discomfort. THIS IS HUGE. So much of our society seems focused on avoiding discomfort of any kind and seeing discomfort as a bad thing. But change, growth, and development is impossible without some discomfort. The next few points are extensions of this one—helping kids tolerate discomfort.

Teach children that the discomfort of delaying gratification is temporary. It helps children to be reminded that the period of self-denial is not going to last forever. Check off days on the calendar, make paper chains, or find your own way of helping the child see that the reward is getting closer.

Teach children that the temporary discomfort of delaying gratification is a sign that their mind is being retrained and their comfort zone is being expanded. The discomfort of delayed gratification is a kind of growing pain. And, again, it’s temporary.

Give lots of encouragement along the way and celebrate the victories.

Just fyi, the above ideas work equally well for adults J. It’s almost scary to see how often we, ourselves, try to avoid discomfort. Yet, if we live too continually in our comfort zone, we aren’t growing. How uncomfortable—in good ways—do you allow yourself to be?