Delaying gratification

By Anthony Field, ECE and creator of The Wiggles on September 10, 2015

Delaying gratification is a simple concept linked to patience and the ability to self-regulate one’s behaviour. It implies the ability to voluntarily put off an immediate reward for a later, greater reward. Psychologists have been testing this ability in children for many years and have found that the power to delay gratification is worth fostering. The research evidence suggests that children who are able to delay gratifications reap many rewards later in life in areas such as academic achievement, physical wellbeing and social competence.

While it is not a skill that comes naturally to young children, by the time they reach age four or five they are beginning to understand that delaying gratification can bring its own rewards. This does not mean that they will always be successful…sometimes the immediate temptation is just too great! Even adults succumb at times!

How can parents foster this ability?

  • Children need to feel they can trust the adult who is asking them to delay an immediate reward for a later, larger one, so always follow through. If children have learned from experience that the promised later reward may not actually be forthcoming, they will see little value in rejecting the immediate reward.
  • Model appropriate behaviours. If children see the significant adults in their lives showing patience and an ability to work towards required results, they are more likely to follow suit. If you are impatient with children, then impatience is what they will learn.
  • Make the offer clear. “We can go to the park as soon as I get the baby ready to go out.”
  • Distract children with a task that takes their mind off the issue. For example engage the child in an interesting activity for the intervening period or ask for some help in whatever you are doing.
  • Try to keep the waiting period realistic. One suggestion is to delay the gratification for one minute for each year of your child’s age. So a four-year-old might be able to wait for four minutes before the promised reward arrives. (A two-year-old might not be always be able to manage two minutes though!)
  • Reward children for patience. “I really liked how patiently you waited while I got the baby ready to go out.” The behaviour we reinforce is likely to be behaviour that is strengthened.
  • Even if children are only partly successful as they move towards the ability to self regulate their behaviour, reinforce the fact that they tried. “I could see you really tried to wait patiently and every time you try you get better at it.”
  • If the later reward is further off, help children mark time…perhaps by crossing off days on a calendar. Talking about the number of sleeps before the coming event is a practical way of helping children understand the concept of time passing.
  • If you know you are going somewhere that will demand a waiting period, be prepared with simple activities that can help children wait patiently. Sing songs, read or tell a story, play simple games.
  • Think of games you can play that help children experience delayed gratification. Games that involve listening and waiting can be useful.  (Simon Says, Red Light Green Light).
  • If a project seems too big for children to get their heads around, help them break it down into small steps and let them see each step as a reward in itself. (Adults do this by making to-do lists and crossing things off when they are achieved.)
  • Don’t expect too much too soon.

Anthony Field is the creator of The Wiggles and as the Blue Wiggle, has been entertaining children with The Wiggles for over 24 years! He was a preschool teacher, has a degree in Early Childhood Education from Sydney's Macquarie University, and is married with three children. The Wiggles use an early Childhood expert as a consultant, Dr Kathleen Warren EdD, MA (hons) LASA, FTCL, teacher, adjudicator and early childhood and drama consultant and writer for The Wiggles.


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