Post No.: 0355
Adults can be bad at it too(!) but children are particularly poor at self-discipline, delaying gratification and not impulsively living for just now, hence why they tend to find it hard to resist temptations or consider the long-term consequences of their decisions and actions. Being able to have a longer-term view helps a child to grow up into a self-motivating, organised adult who can plan, cope with difficulties, persist in the face of failure and be less easily distracted.
Delaying gratification and focusing more on our long-term goals is vital for achieving important aims and ambitions, because most worthwhile goals require an investment of something today for a payoff that’ll only occur long in the future. Levels of self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification (e.g. to save money, to invest the time and effort into one’s education, to exercise, to not overeat) are much more reliable predictors of future success (regarding health, finances, criminal offences, etc.) than initial IQ scores. Being able to pick yourself up from a fall is also a crucial skill.
One could try to immediately get whatever one can get right now by perhaps living on credit cards and loans, or be an entrepreneur by studying hard, working hard, saving, investing and only cashing in later to give oneself a chance of massively overtaking the former types in life, akin to the proverbial tortoise versus the hare.
So the ability to maximise the payoffs for the long-term and overall picture is one of the most important skills in life to have, and these skills can be taught and learnt; and like most things they are best learnt when young. Commercial marketing tries to increase temptation and impulsive purchasing for the benefit of the retailer and often to the detriment of the consumer, and new technologies and techniques in advertising can and do have an increasing impact on us nowadays, which means that these skills to fight temptation are more important than ever before.
Children should be raised with the awareness of the value of money – with financial education. Don’t insulate them from the household challenges of budgeting, shopping around and accounting. Start small. Physical coins are good for they help to clearly visualise the savings building up in their piggy bank. Pocket money can be effective, especially if it’s linked to their efforts (doing chores) because to give them money for nothing is not teaching them the link between working and money. Learning how to save for something they want in the future is key for improving the skill of delaying gratification. And if they make mistakes then don’t bail them out otherwise they’ll never learn from those mistakes.
Everyone likes fun (according to their own idea of fun) but should we always have it now and live in constant financial insecurity or debt, or delay it and have fun without unmanageable debt later? We might die young but that’s a bit pessimistic. And, for adolescents, if ‘you only live once’ (YOLO) then why risk dying sooner by taking recreational drugs or doing risky stunts that can potentially seriously harm or maim yourself, or others, for instance? If life’s too short then why make it shorter(?!) Does YOLO mean you should take risks because you might not have another chance to, or does it mean the complete opposite and refusing risks because if you die young or otherwise wreck this one life of yours then that’s it? If something goes wrong then will you be able to live with it, or if you forgo something then will you have no regrets?
Well I suppose the right or wrong answer depends on the outcome i.e. with the benefit of hindsight, which we unfortunately don’t have until afterwards! Yet we can attempt to work out what’s the rational thing to do before we do it – and dying young is unlikely for most people nowadays, hence delaying gratification is overall wise in modern times. We can ‘seize the day’ yet pace our life out rather than think that we must always ‘buy now, pay later’, because there will likely be a later. Tomorrow will likely come so be patient. Perhaps one can take a moderate path between short-term gains with long-term pains, and long-term gains with short-term pains, rather than have it all or nothing; as long as one can afford it. So it’s not about refusing fun – it’s about not creating long-term miseries or limitations because one didn’t live sustainably or invest in one’s future. It’s therefore really about maximising one’s overall – rather than merely immediate – fun because long-term misery (e.g. from suffering from bad debt problems) isn’t fun. And who doesn’t want to maximise their overall lifetime fun?!
Feeling more connected to your future self – so being able to imagine where and how you’ll be in the future or exactly what you’re going to do with some money you’ll receive in the future if you could just wait patiently for it – may make you more willing to wait for a larger but delayed reward rather than a smaller but immediate gratification. If we trust that we’ll be rewarded for our hard work and patience then that helps. Feeling more certain about the future can therefore combat the effect of overly discounting future gains and improve the chances of delaying gratification. This might be one reason why comfort eating or ‘retail therapy’ occurs when we’re stressed – our personal uncertainty of the future makes us want to live for instant gratification. We perceive that there might not be a (great) tomorrow so we’ll live for just today while we can.
Teach young children the long-view. Teach them how to focus. Teach them to apply grit and determination. Use the marshmallow test to assess your child’s ability to resist impulses. This has a few variations but one is where you offer 1 fluffy marshmallow (or something the child likes) now or 2 fluffy marshmallows if the child can sit and wait for 10 whole minutes without eating the first marshmallow. All of the marshmallows must be in plain sight throughout the whole test.
Some later research actually found that, by using the marshmallow test, the correlation between children’s ability to exercise self-control at the age of 4 or 5 and their behaviours and outcomes a decade later was weaker than what was found in the original research, especially when controlling for factors like their family background and home environment (the socio-economic circumstances of people when young keeps cropping up in research as correlating with their outcomes when older).
Yet it’s still pretty logical that self-control and self-discipline are important to achieve success in life, even though the marshmallow test might be a bit too oversimplistic to assess this. It’d otherwise be like concluding that eating healthily is pointless just because a study showed that people who regularly ate chocolate weren’t necessarily unhealthy! It may just indicate that self-control is not a stable trait but can change throughout one’s life, or at least between the ages of 4 and 15 – and this would be good news because it would suggest that delaying gratification is a skill that anyone can learn, rather than you’re either born with or without it and this cannot be changed.
A child’s self-control is partly inherent but they can learn distraction techniques to distract themselves from temptation, you/they could change their environment to remove any temptations, and you can let them explore more freely without constantly telling them exactly what to do in particular situations so that they can learn from the safe consequences of their own mistakes. These kinds of techniques are necessary because one shouldn’t rely solely on brute, unassisted willpower because this eventually runs out even for the strongest! Read about ego depletion in Post No.: 0220.
To test and improve their ability to pay attention to instructions rather than do the first thing that comes into their minds – another game they could try is the ‘heads and toes’ game. This is where they must touch their head if you say, “Toes”, and touch their toes if you say, “Head”.
Yet another game is the ‘freeze’ game, where they must dance fast to fast music, slow to slow music, and freeze when it stops. Then try the opposite instruction by dancing slow to fast music, and fast to slow music. Or a similar game is the ‘conducting the orchestra’ game, where your child holds any musical instrument they like and you have a baton with which they must play to the speed of when you wave it, and stop playing when you put it down. You can then reverse the instructions like in the previous game.
Other activities that can train their impulse control include asking them to write with their non-dominant hand, to repeat the months of the year in reverse order, or name as many objects in a certain category as they can within 30 seconds.
When they are concentrating very hard – encourage them to reflect on their behaviour by asking them how long they thought they were concentrating for (then point out that time flies when you’re focused), or by asking them how it felt when they were interrupted (then point out the value of being able to get back into a task whenever interrupted).
In summary, the skill of delaying gratification is critical for achieving many different positive outcomes in life, and since it is a skill, the good news is that it can be trained.