Today's kids and teens are commonly criticized for wanting instant gratification. But what exactly is instant gratification? This term refers to the tendency to give in to a tempting, short-term reward that typically jeopardizes a long-term goal. A few examples of what instant gratification might look like:

  • Stopping into a fast-food restaurant for dinner rather than eating a more healthful dinner option
  • Staying out late for drinks when you set a goal to get more or better-quality sleep
  • Splurging on a dress that caught your eye in a window display when you resolved to stick to a budget
  • Scrolling Instagram while procrastinating on a school project

With food delivery apps and two-hour online grocery delivery services, many people have become accustomed to being able to get anything delivered straight to their front door with the click of a button. The access kids have to technology has created a society that can have almost anything they want, with very little effort, in no time at all.

Our society is used to instant gratification. These modern conveniences have been absolutely life-changing and even potentially life-saving as the world tried to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. These services were an innovative response to a plethora of problems.

However, growing too reliant on products that offer constant instant gratification comes at a cost. Instant gratification can lead to impulsivity, decreased ability to resist temptation, and difficulty pursuing meaningful, long-term goals.

There is, however, some good news. There is an antidote - delayed gratification.

What Is Delayed Gratification?

Children in line

Delayed gratification is the act or ability to resist an impulse or temptation in favor of achieving a long-term, meaningful reward. Examples of delayed gratification might look like this:

  • Being able to wait patiently for a parent to pour milk
  • Waiting to play video games until after their homework is finished
  • Willingness to save allowance money
  • Waiting in line patiently

Walter Mischel explains that:

“The good news is that this cognitive and emotional skill set is eminently teachable, particularly early in life. It's great in preschool; it's great within the first few years of life. It's great in adolescence even. And it continues to be a skill set that can be developed even when we’re quite mature adults.”

If instant gratification is something you've noticed in your child's behavior, there's no need to worry. Delayed gratification is a teachable skill!

How It Relates To Goal Setting

Mom helping child with homework

Delayed gratification is a necessary step toward thoughtful decision-making, self-regulation, and goal-setting. Goal setting can be taught as early as age three or four but can be implemented later in life as well. It is, however, important to cater the goal-setting process to the child's age, understanding, and ability. Indiana Youth Institute summarizes the benefit of teaching goal-setting in saying:

Teaching children how to set and achieve goals helps them learn the values of reflection and self-improvement. And reflective self-improvement, also called a growth mindset, has been found to be a better predictor of future success than IQ.

Many child psychology experts are praising the benefits of delayed gratification, but what are some ways for a typical family to build this skill?


Teaching Your Child To Prioritize Will Make Their Life Way Easier

Building The Skill

Kids celebrating with mom

In order to encourage delayed gratification with your family:

  • Model the behavior in everyday life. Children look to parents to set an example. For this reason, parents have to demonstrate patience, share goals aloud, and keep long-term goals in mind when making daily choices.
  • Talk about cause and effect. Discuss the consequences or potential outcomes of a decision or action with your child. For example, if your child is asking for a small, impulsive toy at the grocery store you could say: "If I buy you this toy today, it will take longer to save for the [new phone, tablet, video game, etc.] that you asked me to buy." Using If-Then statements can be powerful in helping kids and teens weigh their decisions.
  • Help your children set goals. Having discussions about short-term goals empowers children to consider what's important to them, practice problem-solving, and implement self-made plans for achievement. Ultimately, this helps to build self-efficacy and requires delayed gratification. One popular strategy for goal setting is to create SMART goals. SMART stands for:
    • Specific,
    • Measurable,
    • Attainable,
    • Realistic,
    • Time-specific.
  • Teach prioritization. Prioritization prevents the habit of procrastination and assists in maintaining focus on what needs to be done. Staying focused on one's priorities prevents distractions, like choosing to study before spending time with friends leading up to a big test.
  • Celebrate effort and achievement. It's absolutely important to celebrate accomplishments, but what's often forgotten is to celebrate the steps that lead to the achievement. Whenever your child makes decisions or takes small actions towards their goal, celebrate it! Take notice of the diligent and consistent practice, as well as the trophies.

Importance Of Delayed Gratification & Goal Setting

Practicing delayed gratification and goal setting has the potential to benefit the entire family. While these skills can take diligence and patience, they have been shown to create a proven, positive impact.

Make it a regular part of your family's routine by modeling delayed gratification whenever the opportunity presents itself. Every time mom argues with dad, and they patiently compromise until a fair solution is reached, they've modeled delayed gratification. Every DIY home improvement project that has been finished is an example of being able to tolerate a bit of discomfort for the sake of achieving a meaningful outcome. Point out these examples as they arise, utilizing them as teachable moments.

Goal setting can become a part of the family's routine by setting aside time weekly, monthly, or quarterly to discuss new goals and celebrate progress together.

With these tips in mind, your family will be well on its way to kicking instant gratification to the curb.

Sources: Indiana Youth Institute, Number Works and Words, Psychology Today, Psychology Today