Delay of gratification is a crucial skill

Photo by Suzette Hibble

Teaching your child to delay gratification can help him in all sorts of ways.  He will learn self-control and willpower.  He will also reduce his impulsivity and increase in academic performance.  But delaying gratification does not come easily and often won’t develop naturally, unless parents and caregivers help children learn this important skill.

Luckily, you can start to teach these skills at any age with simple games that don’t take much time.  Start by offering your child a toy you know she wants but at the last second pull it back saying, “Ut oh, wait just a moment.  Wait…wait…great job waiting!” and then hand your child the toy.  At first just ask your infant or toddler to wait a few seconds.  Then as your child becomes better and better at waiting for the object of her desire, begin to lengthen the time required.

This works best if you’re both in a good mood and you’re playful in your removal of the object.  Children always learn best when they’re enjoying life.  But if your child reacts negatively to your attempts to play a waiting game, just ignore any outburst, give the toy back after the allotted time and try again later.

It won’t do much good to tell your child when they didn’t wait well, but when they do, be sure to give him some positive feedback using effort and/or behavior based praise.  “Great waiting!”  “Good job!” And “Wow, I could see how much you wanted that, but you waited anyway!  Nice!” are all great ways to reinforce delay of gratification.

Do your best to stay away from character based praise though.   “Good boy!” or “You’re so smart!” can actually make some kids more self-conscious and fearful, rather than helping them feel good about their accomplishments.  For more information on effort based praise see my earlier article “The dangers of praise.”

Impulsivity is a defining characteristic of young children, so don’t expect too much too fast.  But if you play waiting games a few times a day, every day, you can expect your child’s capacity for waiting to grow over time.  And that’s good news, because in the short term, you’ll have a more patient and considerate child.

And in the long term, delay of gratification has been linked to better studying behaviors and might even be linked to reduced drug use in teens and young adults. If you caught my blog about a conscious relationship to money, you know that delay of gratification is also a great asset in terms of financial planning, saving, and living within your means.

Right now I’m wishing that I had learned much earlier to delay gratification, but we all have to start somewhere, and I’m a firm believer that it’s never too late to learn a new skill.  So, as I teach my daughter to wait, I’ll also be practicing delaying my own gratification and we’ll both enjoy the benefits of increased willpower and reduced impulsivity.

What have your experiences with impulsivity and self-control been?  I would love to know what you think about this topic.  Please leave me a comment!

Have a wonderful week, Shelly


Love loved this article and the addition by Chris. It was extremely enlightening! I never thought of teaching the concept of delayed gratification. Recently I learned about the Marshmallow experiment and thought I would explore the concept. So glad I found this article.


Wow Chris, Thank you so much for your comment! I LOVE what you've suggested and agree that being up front about the waiting is a much more respectful way to introduce it. I like the "I'm going to give you this in five seconds" idea much better than my initial idea.

And, just to clarify, I didn't intend to deceive or manipulate, but I can see how my suggestion might seem deceptive. I meant it to be more like a fun game, rather than an underhanded manipulation.

But I'm so grateful that my post encouraged you to share your story and your perspective. I'm so glad you're a part of our community here!

Have a great day Chris!

Chris Cade
Chris Cade

Long time reader, first time commenter. I very much enjoy your newsletter and read every single one, often metaphorically nodding in agreement and grateful for a kindred soul when it comes to parenting values.

Before there was never really a reason to comment since I was in agreement with everything I read. However, today there's some baby and some bathwater so to speak.

When I first read the part about pulling back the toy, and then if there's a negative response, continuing to withhold, my gut cringed. Not due to my own past history, but because of the awareness of how painful and manipulative that is to a child.

Don't get me wrong though, I understand the value of delayed gratification. My son is 4 and we've been doing delayed gratification with him since his earliest days that I can remember. And I understand why, if the child responded negatively you'd advise to continue holding the boundary to be consistent with what you said you'd do.

I just feel that the specific recommendation here on how to implement delayed gratification will do more harm than good. Just imagine growing up all your life having parents who said, "Here you go. Nope, now you have to wait... okay, now you can have it."

Whether it be toys, food, or of course even worse would be a parent who took it to the extreme of affection like hugs and kisses.

In my experience, there's a lot of ways to support delayed gratification that don't involve directly deceiving a child.

For example, it is adequate enough to simply make delayed gratification inherently part of an experience. My son, now four, sometimes doesn't want to listen to his body when he needs to pee. He'll try and play all day until the very last minute before peeing sometimes, and he often doesn't want to go before we get ready to drive someplace.

I get it. He doesn't want to miss a thing. In his little world, he's excited and wants to already be there and not doing boring, mundane stuff like sitting on a toilet.

Still, it's a great opportunity to communicate with him. He may tell me he doesn't have to go potty, and I'll respond "I hear you don't think you have to go potty, and I think your body might really want to go pee. But I'm not certain because it's your body. Before we get in the car, I suggest you try sitting on the potty and I'll count to 20."

Then it becomes a little game and if he makes it to 20 without peeing he says, "I was right" and I concede that I was wrong and he was right. On the other side of it, if he starts peeing sooner then he lets me know his body really did need to go pee.

I try to integrate delayed gratification into his regular experience of life. Sometimes it comes in the way of food. He looooves sweets, and regardless of the fact that all ours are organic and when possible low or no sugar, one of his favorites (and mine) is chocolate.

He'll wake up in the morning and want chocolate. Now of course that's not the best breakfast to start his day off, so we'll do a little bartering. I'll grab him a small bite of chocolate, enough to whet his appetite, then he'll have breakfast and then if he still wants chocolate I'll give him another small bite. He gets what he wants ~ chocolate immediately ~ and he gets to eat a hearty healthy breakfast, and he learns delayed gratification for the rest of the chocolate.

When he was younger with toys, we just made things very clear with him. No pulling back a toy; instead, I'd just slow down the process of giving it to him and I'd count.

For example, "Okay, I'm going to hand it to you in 5 seconds. Are you ready?" "Yes." Okay, 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... here you go!"

In that example, you can see that I also use questions as a way to delay gratification since those require time to respond.

Anyway, long story short ~ I absolutely agree with bringing in delayed gratification in a child's life as early as possible. I just disagree strongly that children should be or need to be deceived or manipulated to help them develop that capacity.


  1. […] moving on to new tasks. This promotes the concept of follow through while it also helps her to delay gratification while she waits for me to join her in her chosen […]

  2. […] Parents start by providing a space for kids to learn how to wait and to see the benefits of doing so. Once they are able to master this trait they should be exposed to the “real” world of banking, debt and credit. […]