Why delayed gratification is good for your children

Why delayed gratification is good for your children

Research shows that children who have reliable environments are better at delayed gratification, paving the way for later success.

Everyone makes choices, even kids. However, the choices they make shed a glimpse into their world views that shape how they face the future. In the 1960s, a series of studies, now commonly dubbed the Marshmallow Experiment, presented interesting findings on how simple choices children choose to make at a young age can affect how and what they become further down in life.

The experiment

The setup was simple. Walter Mischel, then professor at Stanford, got together a group of preschool children at the nearby nursery. Each child, depending on their interest, was shown a marshmallow, a cookie, or a pretzel. The experimenter then told each one that he was going away for a while. He gave them two choices: eat the marshmallow straight away or wait till he came back and be rewarded with an extra one. He then left the room.

What they observed next was entertaining to say the least. Several children grabbed the treat and gobbled it up the moment the door closed behind the experimenter. Then there were the rest. Some tugged their little fingers at the edge of the marshmallow; others started speaking and stroking it as if it were a pet. Still, others tried to close their eyes and distract themselves as they counted down to the impending return of that marshmallow Santa.

Those who had lasted long enough to that point were rewarded with the second treat. Simple enough; but what made it really big were the subsequent findings that followed years later.

The follow through

Decades after, the children in that original experiment showed higher SAT scores, better social skills, stronger stress management, and lower substance abuse levels than those who had gobbled that marshmallow straight up all those years ago.

Child development is a confluence of myriad of factors and should not be singled down to any one cause. However, researchers found convincing evidence that the early ability to self-impose delayed gratification strongly correlated with higher achievements and better decisions later in life.

Take a step back, and the underlying reasons seem more obvious and intuitive. Wanting to take a break yet persevering to study leads to higher grades. Waiting till mealtime develops better dietary and weight management. Wanting to call it quits on the track yet going the extra round renders you a fitter person.

Were these children just born with this ability?

Thankfully for us parents, this is not the case. We have a vital role in helping our little ones nurture this crucial skill. The answer really came with a follow-up study by the University of Rochester in 2012.

dealyed gratification

Like the original experiment, pre nursery students were subjected to the same marshmallow test. This time however, they were to first undergo a series of experiences before the actual marshmallow test itself.

Children were split into two groups. The first group was given a set of reliable experiences. For instance, they were told that they could immediately use a small bottle of crayons. However, if they were to wait, they would be rewarded with a much larger set when the experimenter came back.

On the other hand, the second group of children was subjected to a series of unreliable experiences. They were given the same promise of a larger set of crayons if they waited. But when the time came and the experimenter returned, they were told instead that the larger set of crayons was unavailable and that they just had to make do with the smaller set. Such experiences continued.

Only after those series of respective experiences were the children set to the marshmallow test. This time however, researchers found that those children who had undergone the series of reliable experiences were able to wait more than four times longer than those who were given the set of unreliable experiences.

What can we do as parents?

Reliable experiences matter. Somehow, the findings showed that children were able to rationally map out if and when to delay gratification based on how consistent and reliable they expected their immediate environment to be. Those shown a consistency of promise and deliverance were better able to delay gratification. Those who experienced inconsistent promises started questioning how reliable the environment and those statements were.

delayed gratification

So the next time you want to say something in passing, or make a frivolous promise, notice that your kid takes it to heart. They are great observers. And if they start sensing that the world around them; the world you help craft when they are young, is consistent and trustworthy and reliable, they may pick up the crucial outlook that delaying gratification can be positively rewarding. And unbeknownst to them, that simple handle could serve them a much richer life in the years ahead.

This article is written by Yodaa

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