Self-Control and Delayed Gratification: Why Teaching Your Kids Matters for Their Adulthood

Recently, I was talking to my daughters about disappointment and gratification. They’re getting to the age where they, of course, want things now but are understanding the benefits of self-control and delayed gratification.

Teaching delayed gratification is so important for our children. Just take a look around at the adults you see that were never shown delayed gratification activities. They demand and huff and can’t seem to cope with life around them. It’s like they crumble and go to pieces at the simplest things.

Delayed gratification in children is such an important skill. It’s better to let them learn this disappointment and boredom now because as they get older (my daughters are 10 and 7 now), they will know how to handle it.

Self-control and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand. Delayed gratification with child development is something as parents we’ve got to do for our kids because we won’t be alive any more to help them one day.

Yes, that’s an anxiety-building thought right there, but it’s the reality of the situation. We need to be teaching our kids self-control. Without it, we’ve got a world of rogue criminals at worst, and at best, a generation of whiners that can’t figure out how to work the stove.

Why are self-control and delaying gratification such important skills to teach our children?

Delayed gratification in children helps them practice self-control. I have delayed gratification activities you can practice with your children, though first, it’s essential to understand delayed gratification examples when teaching kids self-control.

Understanding it yourself will help you teach it. We all know as adults that we must work now so we can play later. To kids, everything is playtime or should be. Anything else is “BOOOOORRRRRRRRINGGGGGGG!”

Another example of delayed gratification you probably resonate with (I know I do!) is that of weight loss. You hold off on eating that pizza or ice cream with your kids so you can enjoy the benefits of better health sooner, or so your jeans don’t feel like they’re squeezing you to death.

Delayed gratification is a great way to have future success. It is connected to long-term success, too, as the famed marshmallow test from the 1970s has long shown. Newer research shows working as a team can make it even more successful, so work with your kids as a family unit now to help them learn self-control that will serve them well when they fly from your nest.

Children that don’t learn this skill will struggle with resisting temptations. So they may wind up overweight, drinking too much, or taking drugs. They may grow up to not understand the consequences of their behaviors and never achieve goals. But those children that learn self-control and delayed gratification will grow up the way you dream for your kids – happy, prosperous, and healthy.

How do you teach your child about delayed gratification?

When temptations are everywhere, and our world is brimming with a now-culture, how do you teach this imperative skill to your children?

It’s such a good question!

However, in the early years, this cognitive and emotional skill is very teachable. And don’t despair if your child is in early adolescence as you can still teach it. Even adults can learn it, but the best results come to those that learn this skill as early as possible.

So, here are my tips for teaching delayed gratification to your children.

  • Be a model of self-control

This may or may not be obvious, but the best way to teach self-control is to display it yourself. Show your kids the value of saving money. Not only for themselves in their piggy banks, but show them how YOU save. Show them how you delay gratification by turning down dessert most nights of the week.

There are other delayed gratification examples, too, like telling your kids you want to eat cookies now but will wait until after dinner, so you don’t ruin your appetite. Or how to stand in a long line.

My kids and I were at the supermarket, and the line was long. I sighed heavily, for I hate waiting too. But I know I can’t throw a fit to get my way. So, I said, “Well, this line may take a while. Let’s play I-Spy to pass the time.” Our kids learn from us so if you want them to have that self-control, remember to practice it yourself.

  • Help them master the art of distraction
Child studying colorful pictures in book

When our kids were babies, we often employed this technique, whether we realized it or not. Changing focus helps us shift out of the negative mindset, like in the supermarket example above. There are so many ways to distract productively.

For example, my kids get so excited to see their cousins who live about an hour away. They will wait by the door for them, and I tell them they’re wasting time. “Let’s draw a picture for our cousins so we can better use our time. Standing by the door won’t make them show up any faster.”

Your kids will learn to busy themselves rather than waste time. They’ll then see the benefit of delayed gratification.

  • Help them set realistic goals

Children always want to be seen as the best. Heck, we do too. But you can’t go from the bottom to the top without doing the work in between. If your child’s goal is to get a better grade, help them set mini-goals to see their progress.

My eldest got a C on a math test. She said she wanted an A, so I said, “Let’s set a smaller goal of practicing our math each day and trying to get more questions right on the next test.”

She practiced and got a B the next time. On the third test, she got that A. She did it herself with encouragement and practice. Each step of the way, I made sure to praise her hard work. Now, she knows how to set her own realistic goals and problem-solve to get to her top goal.

It all goes along with setting a plan. Sometimes, your child won’t know what they want, though, and you’ll have to help them find their way. Ask them what they want. Then ask them what they’re going to do to get to that thing they want.

It’s here you’ll help them see where they’re making excuses.

We see it in our adult behaviors too. We want to be a specific size. But we keep eating cookies. Is that helping? Nope! So we can look at this and see how we can set the right kind of goals and change our behaviors to get to the place we want to be.

  • Teach the art of priorities

Self-control is all about doing the most important things first. My eldest has learned from watching me how to make lists of things she needs to do. Then she will organize that list into things that need to get done first.

For example,

You need to clean the floors. But if you mop them first, that doesn’t help things. You need to either sweep or vacuum up dirt and pet hair first, then mop. Showing kids this simple example will help them see the value in prioritizing things.

  • Celebrate their achievements

When your child reaches a goal, they’ve set, that’s a HUGE deal. Make sure you acknowledge it but appropriately so. I like to think of Billy Madison with Adam Sandler. Yes, it’s silly, but we see how his dad threw him a party after completing each grade. That’s a bit extreme, so take it down a notch. A high-five, sticker or letting them do a fun activity is a great way to reward a young child for delayed gratification.

  • Show them how to save money

Delayed gratification and self-control aren’t always about money, but money is a great way to teach this skill. Little children can learn this by saving their money for a rainy day. Taking them to the bank when they’re a bit bigger to start saving in their account will help them see a dollar value.

But I like to go a step further. I have mine help me at the store. I always use my card, and my eldest asked if we had tons of money because I always just slide my card.

I started carrying cash to teach her and her little sister how to stay on budget. I also taught them about comparing prices and getting the best deals. Though the supermarket isn’t the best example for us as I firmly believe quality ingredients lead to better health and it’s not a great idea to buy cheap junk with artificial ingredients in the name of saving money.

dollar bill

Instead, we go to the mall to walk around. I’ll usually let them have a treat if they’ve done well with their goals. Then I’ll make a big show of something I like. Shoes, usually.

“Mommy, you should get them! They’re pretty!”
“Yes, they are. But I do not need new shoes. We could use this money for other things we need instead.”

But I think the lesson is easier to see in other ways.

My eldest asked me why grownups get tattoos. “Some people like them. They like expressing themselves or having something the memory of someone with them forever.”

“Are they cheap like the stick-on tattoos?” my youngest had asked.

“No, they cost quite a bit of money to do, especially if they are bigger,” I explained.

My eldest sat for a beat and then said, “Then why does Uncle Bill keep getting them? He said he has no money, but he keeps getting more tattoos. Shouldn’t he save his money?”

Yes, he should (hopefully Uncle Bill is reading this now!).

Your Kids Will Gain Self-Control if You Exhibit It

Everything you do has the potential to teach your kids. We can’t be perfect all the time, and that’s not what this is about. Even when you make a mistake, you can point that out. It can serve as the delayed gratification teaching your child needs.

For example, you ate dessert when you should have abstained from it. Now you didn’t reach your goal. You can show your kids why not waiting has cost you and will make you wait even longer.

When you buy something that wasn’t worth the money, you can tell your kids about the remorse you feel.

And no matter how well we teach them, think of our parents.

My parents were always trying to teach me these things. Mostly I listened, but there were times I didn’t. I learned just as well from those things too.

Ultimately though, the example you set at home goes a long way. Kids need us to show them how to be patient in boredom or while working for goals. We do them no favors by handing them everything they ask for the minute they ask for them.

If you think society has gone down the tubes, just wait. Grownups that weren’t taught these skills are out there now in greater numbers than ever. If we teach our children well, they will have the best chance of surviving in this mess. And no matter what, when we teach them self-control and delayed gratification, we can be sure that they will be happier adults over their want-it-now contemporaries.

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