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Teaching your kids delayed gratification

Delayed gratification is not something that comes naturally to young children, sometimes even teens.  And, if we are being completely honest with ourselves,  many of us adults struggle with it as well.  We know that if we exercise and eat right,  in a few months we’ll have the bodies we want.  Yet, since we don’t see the results immediately,  we’ll skip the gym,  and grab another brownie.

And,  these are adults I’m talking about,  full-grown adults!  We understand the idea of delayed gratification.  Logically we know that if we invest now,  we’ll see the pay-offs tomorrow.  Yet, we still struggle at it.

The thing is,  we expect our little ones to grasp the concept of delayed gratification.  We tell them they must brush their teeth two minutes every morning and every evening to avoid cavities in the future.  We preach to them the importance of doing their homework and studying today so they can get into a good college when they graduate high school.  We explain that they need to go to bed early so they can be rested for tomorrow,  and have a no-whining,  energy-filled day.

The thing is our kids don’t want to brush their teeth;  it’s boring.  They don’t enjoy doing their homework;  they’d rather play with their friends.  And,  they want to stay up later,  because they want to watch a movie.  But, learning delayed gratification doesn’t just help our kids during childhood.  It’s a skill that benefits them well into the adult years:

  • Save money today so that compound interest maximizes their dollars for retirement.
  • Live healthy today so they can run and play with their own kids and grandkids.

As children start to progress through the grade school years,  many will begin to realize the benefits of delayed gratification from their own experiences or by watching their peers.  Still, some will focus on the here-and-now,  and leave tomorrow for later.  I see this more than I would like to as an elementary school educator.

Three years ago,  I had a girl named Ellie in my class.  Ellie loved soccer,  had a little sister she couldn’t stop talking about,  but just would not do her homework or complete her in-class assignments.  Ellie was very capable of doing her work,  but when she would return to school empty-handed,  I would ask why,  and she would tell me that instead of doing her work,  she was out playing with her friends or watching TV.

Of course I got Mom involved and we communicated about what Ellie was doing (and not doing),  and eventually Ellie’s mom starting taking away privileges:  can’t go to the movies,  or no more use of video games.  And,  at school she missed some of our classroom parties and other fun activities.

Ellie was always remorseful,  and sad that she lost these opportunities at home and in class,  but when the chance would arise again,  although she knew what her consequences would be,  she would still make her decisions based on the moment,  and not consider the long-term repercussions.

So, what can we do as parents to help our children embody the concept of delayed gratification? Well,  it’s as easy as A, B, C.


You can use an allowance even for young kids.  When they have done a chore at home,  start by giving them a quarter or a dollar right away so they can associate the payment to the act.  Then,  prolong payment.  With every act,  mark it on a chart so they can see the chore is still being accounted for.  Then,  at week’s end,  pay the lump sum.  If you’ve done this early on with your kids,  when they become teens,  you delay payment two weeks,  or maybe even a month.  This is a great way to teach your teen budgeting as well as preparing her for monthly pay-days in the “real world”.


Yes, that’s what I said… bake.  Bake cookies,  a cake,  brownies,  whatever.  This is a wonderful chance to delay gratification for younger kids.  Help your child bake a sweet treat.  He will see how much work the two of you have put into it,  but learns quickly that he can’t enjoy the spoils right away.  You mix and measure the ingredients,  but there’s still the cooking part.  And,  even after they come out of the oven,  the cookies need to cool.  Once cool,  your preschoolers can bask in their patience and enjoy their hard work.  To tweak this for grade-schoolers…  don’t let them lick the bowl.  Either rinse it right away or set it aside for later.

Circus (or Carnival)

Yes,  they both start with “C”,  but really this last exercise can be any family outing:  bowling,  the movies,  the zoo.  Have your youngster work for the privilege of this family outing.  Maybe she has to complete so many chores,  or she must meet a goal in school that you have set.  So,  this gives her a goal to shoot for,  and it’s going to take some time to get there.  Once,  she has earned it,  you continue to delay by not taking her immediately.  Sit down together,  look at a calendar,  and set a date for the excursion (somewhere between a week and a month,  depending upon your child’s age and your schedule).  Teaching your young one to look forward to an event builds anticipation and patience.  Then,  when the time comes,  the delayed gratification is that much more powerful.

When we can help our children embody the concept that sometimes they must sacrifice a little today to get what they want and need tomorrow,  we are doing them a huge favor.  We are setting them up for success in school,  at work,  in their relationships,  their finances and even their health.

So, start today… why put it off?

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