Can We Teach Our Kids Delayed Gratification?

I came across something interesting while reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He talks about an experiment conducted among 4-year-old children. They were given one Oreo. They could eat the Oreo now, or wait 15 minutes before eating it, and they would get a second Oreo. While waiting, they had to remain alone in a room without any distractions (books, puzzles, video games, etc.) About half of the children managed to wait. These “resisters”, 10-15 years later, were more successful (defined as less likely to take drugs and having substantially higher test scores). Another, similar, experiment can be found on Ted TV here.

This experiment is fascinating to me because a lot of financial planning is about delayed gratification. I see adults that are resisters. They can easily adjust their lifestyle as needed when children are born or when a spouse loses a job. I also see those who struggle with impulsive spending and prioritizing wants vs. needs.

I spoke with Kathryn Mercurio, MSW, who practices in the greater Boston area. She provides some great tips for teaching kids delayed gratification:

1. Set a good example – While shopping with your children, show them that everything you buy has meaning. For example, use a shopping list and stick to it.

2. Teach mindfulness - Help children become aware of their thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and the surrounding environment. When your child seems distressed, ask them what they are thinking. If they are old enough, have them write down every thought that goes through their mind. You can help them challenge/reframe thoughts that may be distorted or irrational. For example, "I can't go on unless I get the new iPhone. I will be the only girl in school without a smart phone and everyone will think I'm a loser."

3. While parenting, practice healthy emotional regulation – By giving children treats or TV time to calm them down during tantrums, we may be making it more difficult for them to self-soothe or emotionally regulate and thus, learn delayed gratification. Try instead to give your child some time to regulate their emotions. Show them you believe in them and teach them to sit with their distress. You can say something like, "I know you are mad right now. I will sit next to you and we'll wait together for this mad feeling to pass."

4. Teach your child how to make informed decisions - Your 10-year-old tells you he's changed his mind about his goal of saving towards a skateboard because he wants to buy a new hat that has become the hottest new trend. You might ask him these questions: What led you to this new choice? How will you feel after you have bought the hat? How will you feel 2 weeks after you buy the hat? Will you regret not buying the skateboard down the road?

I have a couple more suggestions for the list:

5. Provide a weekly allowance – Start teaching your child money skills with their income. Suggest (or require) they use a portion for short-term items, like going to the movies with friends, a portion for more expensive wants, like designer jeans, and the balance for the future, like college savings.

6. Consider sharing your budget – I have a neighbor who was a single Mom for a while. Money was tight and she was always fighting with her daughter about purchases. She sat down and showed her daughter what money comes in each month and what money had to go out for necessities. The woman said her daughter just “got it” and wasn’t resentful or upset. The daughter now applies those skills in her own life.

Personally, I can’t wait until my daughter turns 4 so I can do the Oreo experiment with her. ☺