Stephanie Sieberhagen

Relationship Specialist

Dr Steph's blog

Delayed gratification

Posted by on February 22, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Another volitional process is that of delayed gratification. By now most people are aware of the Stanford Marshmellow Test, conductued by Walter Michel in the 1960's and 70's. This test has since been disputed and although delayed gratification is no longer the gold standard as a measure of future sucess, it is certainly a principal volitional process which comes into play on a daily basis and can determine how healthy we are and how hard we are willing to work. 

Witnessing the slow development of delayed gratification in children can be like watching paint dry, just with a bucketload more anxiety and concern for their futures. Children go from baby-steps to being expected to run a 3km course at school in hardly any time at all. The one moment we are protecting them and keeping them out of the sun and the next moment they need to be tough little warriors with a will to endure discomfort, physical challenges and being bested by everyone in their class while having a smile on their dial and showing good sportsmanship. It boggles the mind.

How do you get your child to do a hike or go for a run, when the only reward they can see, is the fact that the activity will come to an end eventually? They don't feel the physical benefits of fitness as acutely as we do, because their metabolisims are still fast and so they feel quite fit anyway. The delay is long and the gratification will probably only be felt in their late thirties and onwards when their peers start feeling the aches and pains while they feel strong. There's no way you can hold that carrot up for two decades!

The same goes for school work. The discipline to say no to games (in whatever form or format) and say yes to homework, revision and study, when the reward is so far off (marks only really hit home at the end of every term), can seem an impossible task. To try and explain that those termly marks end up to a net result that will determine a further few years of study and then, after much hard work, will eventually realise into the possibility of a good job where you might be able to afford a one bedroom flat... well, you see what I mean.

So what is the golden bullet? How did we learn delayed gratification as youngsters? I guess the answer is mostly through failure. It is only through having failed to make the cross-country team because you didn't train in the holidays or failing to achieve entrance into your favoured course because you didn't make the grade - that finally focusses one's mind.

Waiting until your kids are old enough to 'handle' failure, however, won't cut the mustard. I think the key is to let them experience failure from their toddler years. The magic ratio is probably about 6 to 1. Six successes for every failure. And the failures have to count. If they can get a reward for running around the house in under a minute, and they fail, you can't just say, 'well, have another go'. 'Having another go' does not equal failure - it encourages them to be slack - trusting they will always have another opportunity - which is not a reflection of real life.

Letting your child fail is harder on you right now than on them, but if the long term reward is that they cultivate a work ethic which encompasses an internal motivation - then it will be worth it - and that is where you have to practice your own delayed gratification.

Good luck.

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