Sunday, February 3, 2013

Delayed Gratification and Impulse Control

In a recent post written at the beginning of this year I unabashedly gave four pieces of unsolicited advice (the best or the worst kind depending on your perspective- you can see for yourself at Advice...). One of my suggestions was:

"Help your kids learn to Delay Gratification: Our world moves so quickly.  Something happens, we immediately respond. Someone upsets you, you tweet about it or post something on Facebook. The problem is that as a result, kids in particular make bad decisions because they act reflexively - because they can, and don't necessarily think things through..."  
In this post, I hope to relay why this is so important and what parents can do to help.

To begin with...A person's ability to delay gratification relates to their ability to recognize the rewards of patience and waiting, while at the same time being able to practice impulse control, self control, willpower and self-regulation.

Why It's so Important: This demand for immediate attention, immediate results, immediate reinforcement and immediate gratification is prevalent everywhere:
  • In my writing courses, my students frequently and impulsively press 'send' spending little to no time editing their work. As a result it often contains careless errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure and word usage that detract from the often insightful comments they are trying to make.  Slowing down, editing, and attending to details before sending off the work (delaying the gratification that it's over and they can move on) can make a huge difference.
  • Research shows that children who learn to delay gratification are better able to complete assignments (McComas, Jennifer J., Rehfeldt, Ruth Anne, Stromer, Robert. (2000) Designing interventions that include delayed reinforcement: implications of recent laborator Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 33, 359-371.)
  • Often when bored and frustrated we eat to 'feel better' when sometimes instead of eating we should be waiting, or simply doing something we prefer not to do. Learning not to give in to immediate urges and needs can help.
  • The need or demand for immediate gratification results in tantrums that might have been avoided.  This is true not only for young children. We increasingly see articles about inappropriate responses and demands for immediate attention in school and in the workplace. 
Learning to delay gratification as children will help our kids as they navigate, home, school, social and work-related situations.

Teaching kids to stop, think, and delay reactions (and gratification) may stop them from impulsive mistakes they may later regret.

What Parents and Teachers Can do:
  • Sometimes we have to say, "NO" - for more on this see: "Yes..when"...The Antidote for Parent-Child Power Struggles
  • Help children learn to wait.  For young children this is often difficult to do, and to help them learn to wait (and avoid tantrums), you can tell them "no" but offer other, more appropriate alternatives.
  • Model delayed gratification.  When things move too slowly or you don't receive what you want to receive, model how to more appropriately deal with delays and frustration.  For me, driving and getting stuck in traffic is the most difficult time to model these appropriate responses - I often shout to the vehicles in front of me - of course only my kids hear...and while I feel better, they don't and in those cases I am not practicing what I preach.  The point is that modeling appropriate responses and how to gracefully accept delays is really important.
  • Reward and praise your children when they do control their impulses and behave appropriately
  • Instead of always buying "extra's" for your child, pick one special item that you will help them save up for.  They can earn money from the Tooth Fairy, from doing extra chores around the house, and/or from saving allowance.
  • Talk to them about the importance of waiting gracefully and/or accepting disappointments. After movies, when traveling, after reading books when this occurs, talk about it.  Talk about the frustrations characters experience and the different ways the frustration can and should be handled.
Here are a few of my favorite books and graphic novels where the characters must delay gratification and as such are excellent books to help begin these conversations, and model appropriate responses:


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum - all ages (the book - illustrated by W.W. Denslow as well as the new graphic novel illustrated by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young - published by Marvel) is an outstanding example of how Dorothy must face challenges, fears and disappointments before returning to Kansas (not to mention the Wizard who must also wait).  In addition to simply reading this and discussing the need (and rewards) of delayed gratification, you may also want to read the original and the graphic novel and talk with your kids about the differences between the prose text and graphic novel stories.

 Rust: Visitor in the Field by Royden Lepp (Grades 4+). This graphic novel is about Roman Taylor who struggles to keep his family's small farm from failing after a war which took his father.

Resistance, Defiance and Victory  by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis (Grades 5+) - a graphic novel trilogy is about life in occupied France during World War II.  The main characters must decide whether to collaborate with the Germans (to gain 'favors') or delay gratification and face rationing of supplies as well as struggle through the war without knowing whether their father has survived. Not only does this trilogy deal with delayed gratification, it also is a wonderful (historical) fiction story that accurately relates life in France in the late 1930's to early 1940's.

Americus by NJ Reed and Jonathan Hill (Grades 6+) is about a boy who has to wait to read a coveted book (which his mother is trying to ban from the library).

A Wrinkle in Time  by Madeline L'Engle (Grades 5+) available in prose text as well as graphic novel - is about teenager Meg Murry who along with her brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin O'Keefe are transported through a "tesseract" (a fifth-dimensional wrinkle in time) to rescue their father.  Feel free to go to this link for lesson plan suggestions: Science Fiction: Skills, Chills and Thrills

Zita Space Girl by Ben Hatke (Grade 3+) is a graphic novel about Zita who must travel to another world to rescue her friend Joseph whom she inadvertently sent through first. She must go through various trials and obstacles before finding him ad responsibly bringing  him back to their world.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Grades 5+) is about a budding silversmith apprentice in Colonial Boston who suffers a debilitating accident and must slowly discover a new path and fate.  Along the way he finds himself embroiled in the American Revolution.  Not only is the book about how Johnny faces mounting disappointments, it accurately reflects life in Colonial Boston.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Grade 4+)  is also about a child, in this case a girl, who suffers a debilitating accident shortly after the death of her mother, and here too learns to face life's harsh lessons with patience and grace.  This novel is written solely in prose and poetry and the author's use of language is breathtaking.

There are also fairy tales about delayed gratification you can discuss: Hansel and Gretel (where Hansel just cannot help himself and he begins eating at  evil witch's house) getting them into all sorts of trouble is one such story.

Delaying gratification is an issue we must wrestle with all our lives.  Helping our children develop coping skills and impulse control will help them now and throughout their lives.

How do you help your kids with this issue?  Please share this in the comments.
In the meantime, thank you for your visit and your shared comments.


  1. Oh my, this is exactly what Im looking for. I need to stress delaying gratification to my children more often. Thank you. Very well said.

    Your newest follower via weekend blog hop.


  2. Can you please come talk to *many* of the parents of my students? :) I really think that so many of the issues I have with my kinder kids could have been avoided if they were used to grownups telling them either 'no" or "wait". Oh, and I loved A Wrinkle in Time, what a great read! I'm visiting from the Mom Monday Mingle, thank you for sharing!

  3. :) New follower here. What a great post. I think unsolicited advice is fine... if I don't like it, I don't have to read it. ;) (Says the worst offender ever). Great reminders as to why we need to help our kids to learn how to wait...

    found you at the hop! love a visit over at

  4. Visiting from the Monday Mingle. Following via GFC. Would love a visit back?


  5. good idea. Of course, easier said than done!

  6. Good post. I have to say though from personal experience that some people are better at delayed gratification due to personality. I was terrible at it in spite of my parents best efforts while my daughter has always been good at it. A silly example is she was so good at making her Halloween candy last a long time that I would finally have to tell her that if she was going to keep it for that many months, she would have to share more with me because I couldn't stand knowing she had all that chocolate in her room. Terrible but true. She could eat one piece of small candy or in the case of a chocolate bar she would eat a fourth of a bar, each day. If she hadn't shared with me she could have made candy last years. She liked candy as much as I do but she has an enormous amount of will power and always has.

    Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  7. My parents practised "delayed gratification" so much that when I was finally on my own, I gave in to my desires too much. It took me a while to get the hang of it.

    abcw team

  8. Good post! I have a 3 year old who immediatly starts having anxiety if she isn't given a drink/snack/blanket/etc, the moment she asks for it. Not only are helping her work on her patience, but I'm working on mine as well.

  9. It's so important to make them wait. We waited on a game system. Our kids are pretty creative because of it. They just got a Nintendo DS for Christmas. We monitor the time they spend on it. We also make them do things before they can play it.

  10. This post was written for this Mom with two boys ages 11 and 8. We just had Christmas and my 11 year old already wants an iPod. Not to worry, he won't be getting one anytime soon. Time to start really doing those chores and save up that allowance. I figure at $5 a week, that will be a good lesson in delayed gratification! lol

  11. Very informative, thank you for sharing.

    Happy WW!

  12. Yes! Great post today. One of my daughter's is a real pia about money burning a hole in her pocket. We have started to make her wait at least 2 weeks after receiving money or gift cards before we let her go spend it. She has to think long and hard about what she really needs or wants, otherwise, she is coming home with junk that immediately goes to Goodwill.

  13. That was indeed great information. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Happy Wordless Wednesday.
    Visit from
    hope to see you around.
    Have a great Wednesday.

  15. This is a very important issue that every parent should know how to handle. I am still learning with my parenting ways so thatnk you for this.

    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

  16. Great book recommendations! The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and A Wrinkle in Time are two of my childhood favorites.

    ♥ aquariann
    Featured Photo: Pegasus Sculpture

  17. So much wisdom here. I hadn't read your blog for a while, but must add it to my followed ones, because, even at 66, reminders for these sorts of things (delayed gratification and the colour advice as well) are Definitely helpful.

  18. What great advice! I'm a pretty patient person and I do a lot of the things you suggested, but we still struggle daily with our children's impatience. I guess it just takes time and consistency, right?

    New follower from the blog hop. I can't wait to read more!


  19. Thanks for sharing with us at welcome to the weekend hop :)

  20. This topic is so perfect, especially in our day and age! I really enjoyed being encouraged by the wait factor. I hate waiting. It's my personality to rush into things. My daughter, Amanda, wanted to visit her friend this morning, but we told her that she could only go once she had picked up her toys. I guess that fits with your examples.

    Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment on my Picture Perfect Party Linky!

  21. I've just done a plug for you on Twitter and Facebook. Also, I remember reading two of the books you mentioned above, A Wrinkle in Time and Johnny Tremain, when I was a kid/teenager. I really like it that you included a list of novels that can help teach this to kids.

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