Your child’s ability to resist an immediate reward and wait for one that is bigger or better can predict social, health, and academic outcomes. This concept is today referred to as “delayed gratification”. The concept was first put forth by a team of researchers at Stanford University.
The study, commonly referred to as the Marshmallow test, was conducted over a 40-year time span and began in the 1960s. The researches wanted to know whether four-year-olds rewards in the form of marshmallows, cookies, or pretzels would affect their behavior and how.
Each child sat at a table on which the researcher placed a reward. Once presented with the reward, the child was told that if he did not eat it immediately, he would get a second reward. He was also told that if he ate his reward while the researcher was away (about 15 minutes), there would be no second reward.
Forty years later, the Stanford researchers conducted follow-up studies. This is what they found: The four-year-olds who had resisted eating their marshmallows had become more successful adults. Also, they had better academic, social, health, and psychological outcomes.
It would be naïve to think that success in adult life depends essentially on “not eating the marshmallow.” That said, the marshmallow test has stood the test of time: The less your child is impulsive, the more likely he is to experience positive outcomes. A less impulsive child is better able to concentrate, overcome distractions, and keep focused on the end objective.
The marshmallow experiment showed that children capable of practicing self-control were more likely to become adults with better self-control.
Children, however, are notorious for impulsive behavior. Most kids can’t stand waiting and would rather have immediate rewards. But there’s good news: science suggests that you can teach your child to delay gratification. Researchers have found that several strategies implemented in early childhood can help reduce your child’s impulsivity.
Here is what they say you need to do to reduce your child’s impulsive behavior:
1) Keep your promises
If you keep breaking your promises, you child will stop believing in you. In one variation of the Stanford study, even after waiting the specified period, the children did not receive the rewards they had been promised. In follow-up studies, these children were less likely to delay gratification.
The lesson learned here is that if you present your child with reliable experiences, he learns that rewards are worth waiting for. If not, he loses interest and continues to be impulsive. Only make promises you can keep.
2) Use distraction
If you love chocolate and you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to keep chocolate out of sight. The same is true when it comes to delayed gratification. “Cooling strategies” can help your child control her behavior.
In the Marshmallow test, some of the children who were able to delay gratification did so by distracting themselves. They sang songs, covered their eyes, or imagined that the reward was less attractive than it really was.
Other studies have found that, from age five, children are able to distract themselves in order to delay gratification. If you would like your child to watch less TV, for example, proposing other activities can help distract her from TV.
3) Try using an abstract version of the reward
Several variations of the Marshmallow test have found that when an abstract version of the reward is visible, children are more likely to delay gratification. In other words, showing your child a picture of the reward can keep him motivated and help him delay gratification. But don’t dangle the reward before him.
4) Try delay discounting with younger kids
Although young children are notoriously bad at delaying gratification, delay discounting can help them reduce their impulsive behavior.
Delay discounting is about proposing smaller and more immediate rewards rather than larger, delayed rewards. The success of delay discounting with young kids is linked to the fact that, when delays are too long, your child is more likely to view the reward as undesirable.
5) Make the reward worth it
Your child will delay gratification only if she considers the ultimate reward to be worth it. Rewards don’t necessarily have to be material in nature. They can come in the form of special moments with mum or dad, family outings, special privileges at home, or more TV/video game time, etc.
6) Take it one day at a time
Teaching your child to be less impulsive takes time. Don’t rush it, but be consistent. Choose the strategies that work best for both of you and stick with those. Positive reinforcement is a powerful strategy that can help your child learn to be more patient and reduce impulsive behavior. The positive behavior kit is a practical tool kit that is designed to change your child’s behavior using positive discipline strategies.
As always, we are our children’s greatest teachers. The best way to teach our children about patience and delayed gratification is to model those qualities ourselves.
An earlier version of this post was published on parent.co