Instilling delayed gratification

About 50 years ago, a group of researchers at Stanford University conducted a test. It involved a series of experiments where 32 children from three to five years of age were offered a treat of their choice (2 animal cookies or 5 pretzel sticks or marshmallows) and left alone in a room without distractions. 


The instruction was that they could eat the treat immediately but if they waited for 15 minutes without yielding to the temptation, they would earn for themselves a second treat.

Most of the children tried to distract themselves by singing, talking to themselves and playing games with their hands and feet.

Others covered their hands with their eyes trying to avoid the sight of the rewards.

Among those who tried to even fall asleep, one child succeeded.

Further studies on these children showed that the preschoolers who waited longer (delayed gratification) did better on academic test scores, were less likely to exhibit problem behaviour, and had a healthier body mass index and better relationships later in life. 

The ability to resist an impulse/ urge to satisfy one’s desire with an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more-valued reward in the future is known as delayed gratification.

This is a fundamental basis for self-regulation or self-control.

The problem with instant gratification is that it is a promoter of pleasure at any cost and a great recipe for addiction and depression, in addition to the future losses it potentially presents.

We must set up our children for a successful future by instilling delayed gratification.

Children can learn this when we help them to set and achieve goals.

Activities that teach them to be patient also nurture this virtue.

It is the responsibility of parents to help them make good decisions that postpone immediate gratification.

This includes making choices that make it possible for them to save money that comes into their hands.

 The joy and fulfilment that children derive from such achievements set the stage for greater gains in future.

Sometimes, parents overindulge their children by giving them what they want immediately to prevent them from crying or throwing tantrums.

 This is a dangerous road as it can contribute to a lack of motivation to engage in beneficial activities such as exercising or learning, which require significant effort.

Children must be taught the value of delayed gratification from a very young age.

 This is one of the best investments parents could ever make in the lives of their children.

Intentionally engage them in an event, and when your child can delay gratification, reward him or her with something they enjoy.


This will reinforce the behaviour and facilitate that desire to continue delaying gratification.

Older children and adolescents should be supported in decision-making by weighing the pros and cons of different choices and discussing the best option together.

 For instance, a child who wants to choose a senior high school instead of what the parents desire.

Though parents tend to veto some of such decisions, it is also a good learning curve to allow our children to make their mistakes and learn from them in some other circumstances.


As always, children learn best by imitation.

Therefore we must share with them how we delay gratification ourselves and the great leaps and benefits that accompany such choices.

In an era of instant gratification in the form of fast deliveries, fast food, fast internet, instant noodles/ coffee, instant money transactions etc, it is important to secure a future for our children where they can effectively cope with stress and frustration, engage in social responsibility and enjoy positive relations with their peers. 

The writer is a Child Development expert/Fellow at Zero-to-three Academy, USA
E-mail: [email protected]

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