In Praise of Delayed Gratification

Hey Moms and Dads:

Can your kids grasp the idea of delayed gratification?

How about patience? Or the idea that doing something right takes time. Flipping that idea around: haste makes waste.

You may already know about the “Stanford Marshmallow Test,” a study from the 1960s. Simply stated, children age four to six were given a choice of one marshmallow now or promised two marshmallows if they waited fifteen minutes. Some kids snarfed the marshmallow as soon as the adult researcher left the room. Most attempted to distract themselves from the temptation – covering their faces, talking to themselves, turning away in their chair, sniffing or petting the marshmallow, and so on. About one-third of the children successfully deferred gratification long enough to earn the second treat.

The actual research was more complicated than stated here, but you get the point. It’s worth noting that a follow up study found the children who earned a second marshmallow tended to score higher on SAT scores as older teenagers.The application of delayed gratification extends far beyond sugary treats. Here are just a few real-life examples of delayed gratification.

Staying in school. Sure, you’re tired of books and teacher’s dirty looks. But a degree is going to be a significant benefit when you go job hunting.

Saving up and paying cash. If you buy something on credit now and make minimum payments, you could easily spend two or three times as much on that car, vacation, leather couch, and so on. Plus, knowing the item you own is fully paid for brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Not throwing curve balls before muscle maturity. Pushing young athletes too hard, too soon can lead to burnout and injuries. In baseball, Little League pitchers should stick to fastballs and change-ups. Otherwise, repetitive stress will damage tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the elbows and shoulders of their throwing arm. Later in their teens, when actual scouts are watching, they won’t be able to perform.

Avoiding gambling. The lure of easy money is the opposite of patient. And it just doesn’t work. That’s why the Bible says, “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” (Psalm 13:11) Who do you think pays for all those glitzy casinos? Why do so many lottery winners end up destitute and miserable? You gamble, you lose.

Maintaining virginity. For several years, the idea of saving yourself for your wedding night was mocked. In many circles now, sexual purity before marriage is once again a reasonable expectation. The many health, spiritual, psychological, economic, and social benefits are well documented.

Pausing before giving in to the latest technology. Sure it’s fun to be the first with the hottest, but early adopters take call kinds of risks. Price tags are higher. Bugs are not worked out. And you waste a lot of time in line at the Apple store or showing off your new toy. (Which is obsolete in six months anyway.)

Planting a tree. Trust me, there are few things in life more satisfying than sitting in the shade of a maple tree you planted twenty years earlier. Now that’s delayed gratification!

Finally, our kids need to know that eating that single marshmallow or buying that latest gadget is their choice. It might even be the right choice. But in many cases they will be sacrificing some benefit or reward down the road.

It’s a conversation worth initiating with your kids.  Maybe even seek out the amusing Youtube video of four-year-olds struggling with marshmallow temptation to start that dialogue!



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