Delayed Gratification and Children

The single biggest personal finance lesson that anyone can learn is that of delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification means that you hold off buying that new cell phone for a while so that you can pay cash for your car in a few years.

Delayed gratification means that you spend the evening reading a book or learning a new skill instead of merely watching television.

Delayed gratification means that you immediately save some of your paycheck instead of even giving yourself the possibility of spending it now.

The more often you practice delayed gratification, the sweeter the gratification becomes later and the more possibilities unfold in your life. Delayed gratification brings financial stability and with it, lower stress. It brings the realization of bigger dreams, too.

It’s one of the things that I most want to integrate into the lives of my children.

The question is obvious: how do you possibly teach delayed gratification to a four year old?

Over the last few years, I’ve been saving little tactics I’ve heard about here and there for just this purpose and, lately, I’ve been putting them to work on Joe. Here are some of the tactics – and how a four year old boy has responded to them.

The Treat Test
I often do this with both Joe and his two year old sister at the same time. I sit them both down and say, “Who wants an M&M?” (one of their favorite treats!)

I then say, “You have a choice. You can either have one M&M now – or you can have two M&Ms in three minutes. Which do you want?”

(I’ve altered the delay a few times.)

My daughter always chooses to have one right away, but she’s just two. My son, on the other hand, usually chooses to wait. Sometimes, if the timeframe is too long, he’ll ask for it now, but he’ll usually find something else to do to distract himself until he can have more M&Ms later on.

Mister Noodle
I essentially do a variation on the “Mister Noodle” sketch from Sesame Street, in which the children give “Mister Noodle” step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task.

Together, we come up with some sort of large project that we want to accomplish. For example, we might decide that we want to make a giant birthday card for Mom that includes a rainbow and pictures of all of the family members in it.

From there, we go through all of the steps we have to go through to complete the project. First, we need to get out the supplies, but we need to get all of the supplies out before we move on. Then, we think about what we’re going to draw – and perhaps even sketch it out lightly in pencil first. Once we have the design, we do all of the painting. Then, if we wish, we add collage elements by looking for the elements we want in old magazines and cutting them out. We then glue on the collage elements. We then leave the card out to dry and put all of the supplies away.

If we focused entirely on just our goal, Joe would turn out a lower-quality card than if we focused entirely on each step as we went along. If we spend some time now delaying the “gratification” of slapping paint on the card and instead think about what we want in the end, we wind up with a much better card.

Joe is just now beginning to see the benefits of this type of planning. I’ve seen it pop up in his thinking about other things recently, particularly in terms of buidling projects with the Magna-Tiles.

focus on the individual steps towards a long term goal

Visual Savings
One big thing we’ve done is focus strongly on what we call “visual savings.”

As I’ve mentioned before, we gave our son a translucent piggy bank for his fourth birthday and instituted a weekly allowance – a small amount of money given to him each week that’s not tied to any specific chore or action. He just receives it as a way of learning money management skills.

A portion of that allowance is “saved” for a known goal. He’ll identify a toy that he wants. Each week, he saves a portion of his allowance for that toy. Recently, for example, he had been saving for a particular Iron Man toy.

We identify how much it costs and tell him how much he’ll have to save up for it. He puts his allowance in each week and also sometimes adds some “found money” to it. He watches the money build up. We talk about the toy he’s saving for and how much it will take to reach that goal.

At first, he was very impatient and would change his goals all the time so that he was saving for a lower-cost toy. In the last few months, though, he’s really started to see the benefits of saving for a better toy. He saved for months for his current Iron Man toy and, for him, the patience really paid off.

Reward Hard Work Instead of Results
My son spent most of an hour picking weeds from our front garden over the weekend. He didn’t do a perfect job by any means – he missed some weeds and picked a few flowers in the process.

But rather than criticizing his results, I just complimented his efforts. “Wow, Joe! You spent a ton of time weeding and now, because of your hard work, the garden looks great!” I then bent down with him to help him finish and simply showed him which ones were flowers and where some of the missed weeds were, not in any sort of a scolding way, but in a “Hey, Joe, check this out!” kind of way.

The focus is on the effort, not on the results. I fully intend to do the same thing when he’s in school. If I see him studying his school materials, thinking about what he’s learning, and asking questions related to them, then I know he’s learning and that earns the praise. The report card? That’s not nearly as important to me.

But don’t we want our children to have great results? Of course we do, but great results are a reward unto themselves. Plus, great results are often the endgame of a lot of hard work. If you’ve worked hard, you will get great results as a matter of course. Our focus is in making sure our children learn the value in working hard, not just chase results.

Working hard builds great things. Chasing results ends up like Wall Street, circa October 2008.

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75 thoughts on “Delayed Gratification and Children

  1. Kevin says:

    “Delayed gratification means that you spend the evening reading a book or learning a new skill instead of merely watching television.”

    Geez Trent, alright, we get it! You’re too smart to watch TV! Would you quit hammering us over the head with it at every opportunity, fer Pete’s sake? Nevermind that that’s not even close to actually making any sense – how is reading a book instead of watching TV “delayed gratification?” What exactly is being delayed there? What dictionary are you reading that claims “delayed gratification” means the same as “choosing pastimes that are subjectively more virtuous than others?”

    “The more often you practice delayed gratification, the sweeter the gratification becomes later”

    Again, this is just plain not true. Where are you pulling these statements from? Is it really more “gratifying” to buy an iPhone 6 months after it comes out, when everybody and their dog has one, or is it more “gratifying” to have it the first day it goes on sale? Obviously, it’s more “gratifying” to get things immediately. It satisfies the urge. That’s what “gratifying” means. The whole reason DELAYING the gratification is hard is because people want things NOW. Because it’s more GRATIFYING to have things you want NOW than LATER.

    Think of it this way – if what you just said were actually true (that waiting to obtain “gratification” makes it sweeter), then why wouldn’t everyone do that? Why would anyone indulge immediately if it were actually “sweeter” to indulge later? Does an ice cream cone taste any better if you wait an hour to eat it? No. It melts. Is a Stanley Cup final game more exciting if you PVR it and wait a week to watch it? No. It’s yesterday’s news.

    See what I mean? Sometimes you just make no sense. It almost seems like you’re saying things just to hear yourself talk, without even thinking about whether or not what you’re writing is actually true, or makes any sense. It seems that more and more often, it doesn’t.

  2. Vicky says:

    Uh…

    I think I get exactly what Trent means.

    I want to go on vacation next year for my anniversary, a cruise.

    I COULD just put it on a credit card and go now, and scramble for months paying interest and trying to get by on what I can paying back the high interest.

    Or, I can put what I can into my savings account little by little, until I have the full amount saved, then by delaying the gratification, pay the full amount in cash and enjoy the trip guilt free and with zero interest.

  3. Jason says:

    I am also sick and tired of Trent beating down the tv-watchers over and over again. Dude, it really comes down to (i) what you’re watching and (ii) who you’re watching with.

    Watching a sport with a bunch of your friends can be as good a sources of bonding as anything else. Just like you like spending time with your kids doing stuff, a lot of people like watching games with their buddies. Everything comes down to context…

  4. Bryssy says:

    We knew when we had kids we wanted to homeschool. My 5-year-old loves this idea. We have talked about saving our dollars and not getting extra things because we will only have daddy working. She is totally fine with that.

    We have been saving and planning for this transition and we can do it.

    It is seriously gratifying to be debt free (mortgage only) and to follow your dreams. I don’t need an iPhone for that!

    We don’t do TV either and it’s a fantastic decision!

  5. Katie says:

    Not to mention I get as much material for thought and personal growth out of something like Mad Men as I do out of a lot of books.

  6. Jen says:

    I think Trent is saying the delayed gratification of a book comes by not having the ending/solution in 30 minutes or an hour. You have to wait until the end of the book to have your answers. Unless, of course, you read the last chapter early on to find out “who dun it”!

  7. Annie Jones says:

    I get what Trent means about choosing a book or learning a hobby over TV. A book offers delayed gratification because the story unfolds slowly instead of being spoon fed via the TV screen. Same thing with a hobby; it’s a slow, but gratifying, process to learn new skills.

    I don’t hate all TV shows, but in general, I’d rather be doing something else. However, I watch about an hour of TV with my husband each evening because it’s something HE likes to do, and I like to sit with him during that time. But I usually have a craft to work on at the same time, because otherwise I feel like I’m wasting time. I have a hard time sitting idle.

  8. Shannan says:

    Some good tips in there Trent. I’m all for delayed gratification, provided that bigger goal out weighs all the alternate smaller goals

    I like the whole Hard-work vs Results thing as well. However I am curious if you have found any advice for when your kids are older of valuing smart-work over hard-work?

    From Shannan
    (Artist & Maze Architect)

  9. Johanna says:

    I agree that reading instead of watching TV doesn’t have anything to do with delayed gratification – and I don’t think that rewarding hard work instead of results does, either. And I don’t think the upshot of that section is even true.

    What if Joe had spent an hour pulling up all the flowers and leaving all the weeds? Wouldn’t that also be hard work? Is that an example of hard work bringing great results as a matter of course?

    Of course it makes sense that if he tried hard to do the right thing but made a few mistakes, you praise him for what he did right in addition to correcting what he did wrong. But that doesn’t have anything to do with rewarding hard work *or* delayed gratification.

    And isn’t it ironic that the section on planning a project in order to do a better job contains a sentence fragment that I don’t think was part of the plan?

  10. Shannon says:

    Annie Jones – just like events unfold in a book, they unfold in a tv show. It’s not like a tv show ends with one episode…

  11. Candice says:

    With regards to “The focus is on the effort, not on the results” I have to say this is exactly the right perspective to take.

    My parents always focused on the results and never the effort. I did almost no work in high school because English and Social Sciences came so easily to me. I lived for the praise that came with straight A’s. The very few science and math courses I took required me to work like I’ve never worked before. Working my butt off to get a C+ in physics only got me negative comments about bringing my average down.

    So what did I do? I took the easy road, stuck to English and Social Science, got straight A’s, and never learned any study skills. Let me tell you, 1st year college was a shock to my system.

    The best thing a parent can do for their child is praise the effort that went into getting that C+ in physics and ignore the A+ in English that required only 15 minutes of studying before the final exam.

  12. Angela says:

    The New Yorker published an interesting article about delayed gratification. A researcher who conducted a study of delayed gratification on young children was able to show a strong correlation between those who were able to wait longer for their reward and their future academic success.

    Kevin – I think what you are missing is the idea that if you wait for your reward, you might be able to get something even better. For example, in the study they gave each child a marshmallow. The child could eat it right away, or if he/she waited a few minutes, he/she could have two marshmallows.

    Trent – I do agree that your examples and the intro could have been written in such a way to demonstrate that the value is not just in waiting to have the same reward later, but in fact, increasing the reward that you receive in the future by waiting.

  13. Kevin says:

    Vicky:

    You’re talking about CONSEQUENCES, which have nothing at all to do with the “sweetness” of delaying the gratification. Using credit to get something right away is every bit as “sweet” as delaying it and getting it later – maybe even sweeter. Some things vary in quality if consumption is delayed, like my ice cream and sports examples. To use your example, maybe if you’re determined to “delay” gratification and pay cash for your cruise, you won’t be able to save up enough to go until the off-season, when the quality of the trip might be degraded.

    Sure, months later you might regret the interest you’re paying on the credit, or the frustration of balancing your budget and trying to manage paying off your cruise, but that has nothing to do with how “sweet” the cruise was WHILE YOU WERE CONSUMING IT.

    I’m not denying that delaying gratification has its vitues. I’m saying the statement that delaying gratification just for the sake of delaying it makes it “sweeter” is nonsense, and has no basis in fact.

  14. Julie says:

    Trent, I would be really REALLY careful using food as a reward. Sooner or later, two M&Ms isn’t gonna cut it. It’s going to be the whole carton of ice cream, in one sitting, in hiding. Food rewards can set the stage for a whole host of issues, like anorexia, bulemia, depression, compulsive overeating and the like.

    The other thing I have to ask is that you’ve said multiple times that your kids’ TV watching is severely restricted. So how does Joe know about Iron Man? It seems to be kind of odd, because my four-year-old watches wayyy too much (and I’m the first to admit it LOL) but we don’t seem to have the issue with wanting the latest toys and gadgets. The Dad and I don’t run right out to buy the latest greatest stuff, so that seems to be similar to your spending controls. So, semi-logically, the TV really has nothing to do with it.

    I think delayed gratification means a lot more to kids when they see someone expending some actual work. You know, like working in the garden? You plant seeds and baby plants and then hoe and weed and water and feed but you have to wait a long time to see the fruits of your labor. It’s hard for them to think in the abstract. As adults, we’ve had years and years to learn to think and reason. My son is still trying to figure out the correlation between Dad going to work each day and the food we eat and the air conditioning. My 20 YO stepson just got kicked out of ISU and he still hasn’t figured out the correlation between having a job and paying the rent.

    I wonder sometimes if this is at all related to purchasing with a debit card instead of using actual cash, plus the fact that our kids don’t see us expend much (if any) physical labor to pay the bills. We don’t even see the paycheck anymore, since everything goes EFT now. It is a “magical” process.

    Heck, did I just accidentally hit on the crux the problem of what’s wrong with the current generation of teens and twenties? LOL.

  15. Mike Crosby says:

    You’re a good dad, my friend.

  16. Annie Jones says:

    Yes, events unfold on TV, but usually not in the same slow manner as in a book. My preference for reading over books is just that…a preference…and I was just stating that I can see Trent’s point from my own point of view. Your mileage may vary, and I’m fine with that.

    Also, TV subjects me to more ads than books; ads are designed to make me want things and want them now. By watching less TV, I see fewer ads, and I am less tempted to want to gratify my consumer urges, whether they be for a delivered pizza or a new car.

    Now working on a hobby instead of TV can be a whole other story…I find the more I work on a craft, the more I want to go buy more crafting materials. :)

  17. Alexandra says:

    Sentence fragments, nonsense arguments, repetitive themes, content regurgitation.

    I think Trent needs some sleep.

  18. Annie Jones says:

    Sorry, I meant “my preference for reading over TV” in my previous comment.

  19. Julie says:

    I posted before I read the other entries. It’s kind of silly to have to remind anyone that this is a blog, which sets out the personal opinion of its author. If he says that delayed gratification is “sweeter”, it should be understood that he means that FOR HIM, it is true. As Annie said, YMMV.

    I also think that DG is more learned than taught. You can’t teach someone to enjoy learning to wait. Kids think you’re being mean and trying to deprive them. LOL. They have to learn much of the “theory” behind DG on their own, through trial and error and experience. It will not always be pretty and there is often some heartbreak involved, but you just can’t teach lessons like that.

  20. John S says:

    @1 Kevin, your post is hilarious and I agree with what you said. However, I think more sense can be made from Trent’s point if we apply a bit of reason.

    Obviously there’s no extra gratification that comes from *delay for delay’s sake*. But that’s not really what he was getting at. It’s what the delay *buys* you, that adds to the overall gratification. In Trent’s examples, this would be the second M&M, or the ability to buy a car with up-front cash. There is an intangible satisfaction that comes from paying for something with cash instead of with debt. The tradeoff is, you must delay gratification (often foregoing other expenditures such as the new phone) until you have the extra cash up front.

    I do agree that Trent’s ascetic life choice recommendations are not going to appeal to everyone.

    I can only envision what will happen once Trent’s son Joe is in college with a part-time job and spending money of his own, and he realizes that after 18 years, he can eat ALL the M&Ms his little heart desires. Some kids go wild after 18 years of deprivation. Others continue on the same track they’ve been on. Unfortunately you can only socially engineer your children to a degree, and the rest is up to them.

  21. Kevin says:

    @Annie:

    “Yes, events unfold on TV, but usually not in the same slow manner as in a book.”

    Apparently you’ve never watched “LOST”. Is 6 years slow enough for you?

  22. Suzie says:

    I really don’t see how reading a book is better than watching TV. There are plenty of truly terrible schlocky novels about that are repetitive and unenlightening – and there is plenty of thoughtful, well-made television.

    Yes, a good book is better than a bad TV show. But a good TV show is better than a bad book.

  23. Kai says:

    to Johanna (#7):
    “and I don’t think that rewarding hard work instead of results does, either. And I don’t think the upshot of that section is even true.”

    It has been found in various scientific studies, that when you reward good results, children come to believe that the good result (say, high mark) is the most important thing, and they will do anything to get it. In some parts of life the result *is* the most important thing, but in education, children typically get more out of trying to work hard and learn than trying to get good grades.

    I saw one where a classroom of kids were given a test, then evenly split in two groups with a good sampling of all results in each group. One group was praised on their high score, the other on the excellent effort they put in to it. Then the kids were given another test/project. They were told they could do one, which would be easier, or another, which would be more difficult, but from which they would learn more.

    The kids who were praised for their high grade overwhelmingly chose to do the easier thing, (presumably to get another high grade, which has been shown to get rewards).
    The kids who were praised for their hard work chose the more difficult one in much higher numbers, and were more willing to challenge themselves.

    I’ve seen some others, but what tends to come out is that a child who is praised for results above all else is less likely to challenge themselves (and risk being outed as not as smart as they’ve been told), more likely to cheat (to keep the high grades coming), and less likely to learn for its own sake.

    Praising effort in children gives you children who value hard work, and are more likely to challenge themselves and attempt things that will cause them struggle.

    Sure, as they get older, and start to move into the world where results are more important, it makes sense for grades to matter more, and outcomes to be more important. But if you want to lay a strong foundation, praise your kid for trying hard.

  24. Becky says:

    You aren’t required by TV shows to strap yourself to the couch and watch the ads. I frequently flip to another channel or do something else during commercials, or better yet, if watching channels like PBS, there typically are no ads.

    It is somewhat bothering to be told watching TV is worse than books, when as many people pointed out, there are many programs on TV that are thought provoking and/or informative. How it’s made, myth busters, historical/political documentaries, sporting events, hunting/fishing programs, cooking shows, etc. There is no way to say without a doubt that either will make you more intelligent, better financially (both can cost money), or is a better use of your time.

  25. Kai says:

    I agree with the annoyance about the book/tv thing.
    It’s obnoxious when people assume that anything on tv is just junk, and anything in a book is intellectually superior.

    It would be justified to say “Delayed gratification means that you spend the evening learning something new, or practicing a skill, instead of merely watching junk television or light reading.

    People who assume books are superior to tv have to come up with a lot of justification. TV doesn’t necessarily spoon-feed you – it depends on what you watch. Some are very intellectually demanding. Some books are total trash, and don’t give you anything but some downtime.

    Are you really going to claim that it’s somehow *better* (in terms of bettering yourself) to read a trashy novel than to watch discovery channel?
    Is it really *better* to read a cooking magazine than to watch a cooking show?

    Personally, I read very quickly. I will get through a novel quicker than a television show will give it to me. Actually, one of the reasons I don’t watch any TV series is that I would get too annoyed waiting a week to see what happens next. But TV is instant gratification?

    It is fair to say that delayed gratification is doing something hard now that will help you later. It is not fair to say that one medium is quick and another not.

    Content matters. Medium does not.

  26. Larabara says:

    If it’s a technological product, it’s gratifying for me wait to buy and enjoy a product that is cheaper and better made than when it first came out. In other words, I find it gratifying to wait 6 months to get an iPhone for 30% less than everybody and his dog paid when they first came out. I also find it gratifying to get most electronic devices with all the “bugs” worked out of it, unlike the ones that first came out. This also is true for vacation packages, cars, and anything else that gets snapped up as soon as it comes out. Depending on the product, it can really pay to wait.

  27. Kathryn says:

    Apparently i’m unusual here. I thought what Trent wrote very sweet & found myself thinking, “I wish my daddy had been more like this.”

    You can’t teach someone to enjoy the delay. But you can teach them that the delay is worth it. Or even that delays are somewhat inevitable and you might as well learn how to manage them. As Trent said, his son has learned to often preoccupy himself while waiting.

    Life is FULL of delays of all kinds, some gratifying and some not. We see every day folks who can’t tolerate delays – folks who cut in and out of traffic – they may save a few seconds on their trip, but they are making the world more dangerous for everyone around them. Also folks who stand in long lines muttering and swearing at the delay. I’ve even seen some try to demand themselves to the front of the line because they “don’t have time to waste standing around.” Our society seems to have a lot of people these days who can’t tolerate the slightest delay. They’ve not learned to manage their time well.

    Trent has said that he always carries a book. If he has to wait, whether at a line at the PO or while having a car fixed or whatever, he has something to occupy himself. I think he not only allows himself to enjoy his life more this way, but is setting a great example.

    I think these are examples of very sweet, touching examples of the thoughtfulness Trent is using to help his kids negotiate the world, not just to struggle through, but to enjoy the ride. You may not agree with all his tactics, but i think it is well worth his effort.

  28. Stephanie says:

    My daughter isn’t even two yet (and barely knows what a television is) and she has seen Iron Man on billboards, outdoor advertisements, magazine covers, packaging on food we don’t buy while in the supermarket, etc…
    A four year old who likes superheroes would be all over those toys if they saw them in the store. My stepson was all about Superman when he was four and had never seen/read any of the movies/comics but he was at a birthday party where one of the gifts was a Superman toy and he thought that was the coolest thing ever. He saved his allowance for MONTHS to buy a Superman toy and slept with it for a year.

  29. Johanna says:

    @Kai: I agree that focusing on grades above all else can be harmful. But aren’t grades just an imperfect measure of the “real” result, which is how much you’ve learned? In the studies you mention, I’d be interested to see what would happen if the children were praised on specific aspects of the quality of their work, unrelated to their grade.

    I guess I should clarify that the “upshot” that I don’t think is true is “If you’ve worked hard, you will get great results as a matter of course.” You can work hard at something downright destructive (like pulling up all the flowers and leaving the weeds), or you can work hard at something completely pointless (as I did when I was in the first grade, when I would take hours to color in the pictures on my worksheets every day – I honestly thought that if I did the job any faster, I wouldn’t be working hard enough).

  30. David says:

    Wow, a lot of comments on TV. Interesting that some thing delaying gratification isn’t so important either. Check out this article from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer. There have actually been studies done on being willing to wait. On the cruise, if you wait until you can afford it (do it next year instead), you’ll have more money in the long run because you won’t be paying interest, and you won’t stress on the cruise.

    Be patient, work hard, and eventually you’ll be gratified. Try and gratify yourself with everything you want now, and live a miserable life. That’s at the core of personal finance. And teaching that to children is absolutely critical.

  31. David says:

    In addition – watching television 90% of the time is for instant gratification. If you spend the time learning a new skill, make more money, retire earlier, than you can watch TV all you want later. That’s the glory of delaying the gratification. Most of us can’t wait though.

  32. Jon says:

    Waiting six months allowed me to get 2 Motorola Droids for about $135. I felt pretty gratified. :)

  33. Kai says:

    @Johanna (#24)
    I would totally agree with rejecting the assumption that “If you’ve worked hard, you will get great results as a matter of course.”
    I think it has to be looked at as an age thing. what helps a 6 year old is not what a 16 year old needs, or what a 20 year old should be working for.
    I definitely disagree with taking it to the extreme and assuming the hard work is the *only* thing that matters – as that’s how you get self-important 22 year olds who believe that just because they tried at the job interview, they should get the job. And just because they tried to do the project, they should get paid.
    We can see how well *that’s* working…

    Specific aspects of quality would seem good ‘you did that really well, and i know you worked hard on it’ seems a decent way to balance support for both effort and achievement, while concentrating on strengths.

  34. margaret says:

    Wow, lots of angry readers today. First of all, praise of effort versus praise of result is right on the money based on current research. Read some current research (or maybe you can find it on TV). An interesting book that includes this research is Nurtureshock.

    As for the M&M test — that is an actual test that was developed to test for children’s ability to delay gratificatio and what kind of coping skills they used while doing so. Further research showed that those young children able to delay gratification tended to be more successful in life. Also, those who LEARNED to delay gratification were more successful. It is a three minute test or practice — it could be done with marshmallows, cookies, chocolates, toys — anything. It doesn’t mean that that is the ONLY time in the child will get a treat. It is just PRACTICE!

    And just for kicks — my husband is one of you guys who watches TV all the time. ALL THE TIME. I prefer to read. If I tell him that I read something about subject X, he scornfully dismisses it as some nonsense I read. But if he hears it on TV, then it must be ture. Obviously TV is more reliable than the printed word. Guess what — some people think TV is a waste of time, and some people don’t. Good luck trying to convince either of us that we are wrong.

  35. Crystal says:

    I never was told that watching tv was a bad thing until I started reading personal finance blogs. I still refuse to feel guilty watching our favorite shows with my husband…

    Anyway, delayed gratification is a really important lesson for everybody…teaching your kids the benefits of saving is great. Sometimes you write like you might be a little tightly wound about it all though. I hope that the side of you that your kids and wife see is a little more mellow…

  36. Kai says:

    @ David (#25),
    I agree that TV watching is most of the time for quick gratification – enjoyment, vegetating, whatever. But I would argue that most book-reading is for the exact same things, and thus stating that reading is better is simply wrong.

    I would also hesitate to make an earlier retirement the utmost goal. For you, perhaps, that is what you most want – and you should then work for it.

    But making more money to retire earlier is not necessarily the best way to do things. Personally, I would rather enjoy myself while I’m young enough to enjoy it, rather than sacrifice for thirty years, so that I can put the money away and go on a better trip next year. I believe in living within your means, and being cautious about spending, and saving for things. I believe in providing for my retirement.

    But I think it’s a poor tradeoff to live completely ascetically and have no fun when young, just so that I can be free of obligations when I’m too old to enjoy it.

  37. Johanna says:

    @Kai(#26): It sounds like we agree completely. How boring is that? :)

  38. David C says:

    I like M&M’s.

  39. Corey says:

    Speaking of delayed gratification, Strasburg is making his first start tonight. Seems like a great pick now. Good luck Trent!

  40. Tiffany says:

    There are times when I have found that the actual act of delaying gratification can lead to more enjoyment overall. And not just because I have time to save up the cash to pay for the whatever-it-is that I happen to want. The anticipation and the daydreaming that are part of delayed gratification can also be enjoyable. For example, I like to travel. A lot. Part of the fun is the planning and anticipation of going on the trip, not just the actual trip itself.

    Also, going through the process of wanting something and waiting for it can make you appreciate it even more when you finally do purchase it. I am currently wearing a very nice watch that I wanted for over a year before I finally purchased it. I have worn it daily for ten years now, and every time I see it, it makes me happy. If I had just gone out and put it on my credit card when I first saw it, I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much pleasure or enjoyment from it.

  41. Karen H says:

    I too take a book everywhere I go. I find it’s much easier to productively use a few minutes of downtime that way, plus I just like reading.

    I read recently (in The Time Paradox http://www.amazon.com/Time-Paradox-Psychology-That-Change/dp/B003F76J14/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276018216&sr=8-1 ) that a child’s ability to deal with delayed gratification from around age 5 was the best predictor for future life success and satisfaction, better even than socioeconomic status. So it’s not just good for your child’s financial future.

  42. Adam P says:

    I thought I read somewhere that you can’t really teach delayed gratification to children. Its something sort of ingrained in people, and the ones that are born willing to wait for the 2nd marshmallow (and yes, it was marshmallows in the original study) are generally going to grow up more successful than the ones who scarf it down right away at age 3 or 4 or whatever age they were when they did the test.

    I hope I’m wrong, kind of sad to think your life could be hardcoded for success/failure by age 3!

    As for the tv/book debate, like others said, there are some very good intelligent television shows that are thought provoking and add to your knowledge base; just as there are trashy books that are just indulgent.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put Masterpiece Theatre on the TV in the background while I read Penthouse Forums ;-)

  43. momcents says:

    I think we’ve been reading the same studies when it comes to praising effort over results. I plan on doing the same thing with my son as he gets older.

    I had also heard of the M&M exercise being done in behavioral studies, but I never thought to implement it in my own home. It’s an interesting idea that I will discuss with my husband tonight.

    And, I’d like to pipe in that watching television isn’t always instant gratification. My husband and I recently acquired the first season of 24, which we are watching together. Last night, I wanted to read a book, but my husband really wanted to watch an episode with me. I delayed my personal gratification so that I could watch an episode and afterward discuss/dissect it with him. My book just had to wait.

  44. Gretchen says:

    What if I was watching TV to learn a new skill?

  45. T'Pol says:

    Trent you have quiet an interesting group of readers here.

    I have recently suspended my cable service for the following reasons:
    1. I want to see if I am really addicted to TV or not.
    2. I would like to focus on a project until the end of this month. Less distraction.
    3. There is not much to watch during summer anyway. (In my country).

    It’s been four days and I am glad to say that I have truly focused on my project and I am not missing TV at all.

    At the end of the suspension period, I will decide whether to keep the cable or not. This is my summer experiment this year.

    I am not saying that watching TV is bad. However, I sometimes find myself zapping through the channels for an hour hoping to find something to watch worthwhile. What a waste of time! Instead, I can watch my favorite shows on the Internet, whenever I want to.

  46. Sandra says:

    The “marshmallow test” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWW1vpz1ybo is quite amusing.

  47. Gretchen says:

    I also don’t get how pulling weeds is delayed gratification.

    Delayed gratification in a garden would be planting seeds.

  48. Colleen says:

    I think this is Trent’s thoughts are great. Our culture constantly encourages us to gratify ourselves now, and learning to wait is hard. I need to do this more with my kids.

  49. Leah says:

    I skipped the comments (especially after reading the first one berating you — c’mon, people, let’s be polite), so I apologize if I repeated anything.

    There’s significant evidence piling up in the education literature to support telling kids “good work” rather than that they’re smart. When you tell a kid they’re smart, they are more likely to give up a difficult task (they assume they are just not smart enough). When you tell a kid they’re a hard worker, they will keep plugging along at a difficult task.

    I love what you’re doing with your son. It sounds like you interact with him a lot and do so really constructively.

    In terms of weeding, I do see it as delayed gratification because you’re teaching him the importance of continuing work. At the nature center where I work, we get a lot of high schoolers who have to fill a community service quota. There’s definitely a whole chunk of them that need to be watched consistently. If you give them an area to weed (something obvious, like a gravel ampitheatre), there are a lot of kids that will pick weeds for 15 minutes and then come in saying “I’m done.” I love the idea of showing children how more work can truly result in a much better product.

    So, kudos to you, Trent. Thanks for sharing! This is exactly what I want to teach my (future, hypothetical) kids.

  50. Kathy says:

    Trent – I was psyched to read that you’ll be focusing more on your kid’s efforts in school than their grades. As a child, I was terrified of making mistakes and felt compelled to cheat sometimes to keep my grades up. While I know my parents meant well in encouraging me to be a high achiever and I appreciate them for that, I’ve often thought that it would have been helpful to me if they’d shifted their focus to effort in terms of becoming comfortable with making mistakes that are important to the learning process. Kudos!

  51. Kai says:

    @Margaret (#27)
    ” Guess what — some people think TV is a waste of time, and some people don’t. Good luck trying to convince either of us that we are wrong.”
    There is a big difference between thinking TV is not a waste of time (reasonable, if it’s your thing), and assuming that TV is the only possible source for reliable information. (highly laughable).
    As for being ‘one of you who watches TV all the time’, is that really your assumption? That those of us who defend TV are mindless drones, zoned out all day?
    I don’t own a TV, actually. I love reading, and I’m very active and spend a lot of my free time in the mountains. I don’t find TV a very desirable passtime. But I don’t project my own habits onto others. If someone else does enjoy watching TV for education, news, or downtime, where I might do something else, I don’t automatically declare myself morally or intellectually superior. Big difference.

    @ Adam (#32)
    “I hope I’m wrong, kind of sad to think your life could be hardcoded for success/failure by age 3!”
    They aren’t. Because there are too many factors in success and failure to assign blame to one thing. Children are ‘hardcoded’ for all sorts of things. But it’s the combination of their natural strengths and those things they choose to work on themselves that brings a person success or failure.
    Attractive people earn more. Tall people earn more. People who are good at math excel in some highly-paid fields. Lacking any of these individual things does not doom you to failure.

    A person who happens to be bad at delayed gratification will have to balance things. He may be one of those who have to set up automatic savings withdrawals, because he can’t trust himself to put away money consciously. But he might be a creative thinker who can come up with new ideas and make a great entrepreneur. Perhaps he’s not great with business finances and will need to get a business partner who is great at plugging away at finances and reeling in dreams, who has great self-control but minimal creativity. Together they might create a billion-dollar industry.
    It takes all types to run a society. No one thing dooms a person to failure.

  52. Jules says:

    Great article, gives me hope for future generations! Everytime I think about taking up blogging, I read comment sections from blogs and realize that my skin isn’t thick enough for it. Kudos to you though for braving it, Trent.

  53. Gemond says:

    I watch TV. I also read. I do both every day and the amount of time for both increases or decreases based on my workload and other things that are a priority for my time.

    I have that time because 1/I don’t have children. 2/ I don’t spend time with online social networking. 3/ I view both reading and watching TV as a part of a day. Not the focal point, but a part of a day.

    My passionate love of books and reading is separate and apart from TV. TV has had some great shows over the years and some specials from time to time, but it will NEVER take the place of a book and if it ever became an either/or choice, I’d be cutting back on TV.

    As for only getting news/information from TV, that’s the way most people do it, but at least they don’t pretend it’s the best or only valid source of information. (Same with online news viewing.)

    I never trust any one source or format for news, and routinely read newspapers (on and offline), magazines (on and offline), and watch TV. Frankly, TV news to me is only for breaking news of major significance. If I want real information about tons of stuff that is more relevant to my life, I go online or to print.

    Watching TV doesn’t make you mindless, stupid or lazy. It’s ONLY watching TV, instead of other activities like socializing with friends in the real world, getting outdoors to play or engage in sports, etc.; or reading.

    It’s when TV becomes your life.

    It’s one thing when you are sick and cannot do much, include concentrating, or are elderly and sick and unable to move about. Then TV takes on a different role. It is your socializer, as it were.

    But for the rest of us, we need to keep it in its place. Meanwhile, given the amount of TV most people are said to watch, I wonder if it means they really just sit and watch. Pretty much everyone I have observed does something else while the TV is on, whether it’s eating (ugh. Bad habit), conversing, doing a craft or other activity, etc. So I dont’ know how much time is really spent just watching. TV is often just the background noise. Some people cannot tolerate silence, which is why so many people have TVs and music on while they read (How do they do it? I can’t. Nor would I want to. I don’t want to divide my attention.)

  54. Julia says:

    Man, tough audience!

  55. Kate says:

    I need to practice this on myself…

    As for the tv debate:

    If you don’t like it – don’t watch it

    If you like it – watch it

    I don’t know why everyone thinks they need to be right about something. I watch TV, I read, I spend time outdoors at the river, I spend time with my friends. Sometimes, my friends and I watch TV together. Seriously, why don’t you worry about the oil in the Gulf and let people watch their tv.

  56. marta says:

    I have to agree with the others on the “book vs TV” thing. I think watching Mad Men, or The West Wing contributes a lot more to my “personal growth” (ugh) than reading Twilight or the latest Dan Brown. Oh, but you meant reading *good* books*! News flash: not all TV shows are junk either.

    FWIW, I am more of a reader than a Tv watcher. But I do both, and I am getting a tad tired of your constant harping on TV.

    I am not going to touch on the delayed gratification stuff, this post doesn’t make a lot of sense. I did spot a lonely sentence fragment somewhere…

    PROTIP: integrate proofreading and editing into the “project planning” for blog posts. I think those are important steps, you know.

    Or, in other words: “Hey Trent, check this out!”

  57. Ajtacka says:

    To build on what Kai (#18) said, I was reading about the same or a very similar study a few days ago, in the book “What the dog saw”, by Malcolm Gladwell. Thoroughly recommended.

  58. Patty says:

    I don’t think book vs tv is really delayed gratification but my real question is what the 2 year old says when she sees her brother get two m&ms. Does she whine for more, does she understand or does she get some anyway b/c she looks cute? (I only have experience with two dogs and you better have two treats each time!)

  59. Doug says:

    I intend to reward hard work and results. A four-year old gets rewarded for hard work because he doesn’t know any better about which plants are weeds and which are flowers. Much like you don’t scold a dog a day after it does its business in the living room.

    But if I reward my 15 year old for “effort” when he has plenty of education to understand what a flower is versus what a weed is . . . I’m gonna be rewarding someone who doesn’t get the results that he needs to complete very important pieces of his life’s work. Here’s a small fact: Employers don’t pay for “hard work.” They pay for results. The better the result, the better the pay. Which is why engineers make more money than people working in a fast food joint. Business owners need results in order to put food on their family’s table, not “hard work.”

    And stop watching so much television. It rots your brain. Every time you change the channel, a kitten dies.

  60. Annie Jones says:

    @ Kevin #16: For the record, I absolutely loved LOST and instantly gratified myself by watching the first four seasons on Netflix discs at the rate of 1 or 2 per evening. Then I had to delay my gratification by waiting a week between each episode and several months between each season during Seasons 5 and 6. It was one of very few TV shows that I truly enjoyed and made a point to watch. But oh how I wish it had been a novel first. Again, reading is just MY preference and I find I get more satisfaction from it than watching TV or movies. For those who get more out of TV, I say go for it. There’s room in this world for both, I think.

  61. Jade says:

    @Kai #18: The study you mentioned wasn’t actually about praising students’ efforts vs. praising *results* – it was praising effort vs. praising *intelligence.*

    Focusing on the result wasn’t the problem. Praising in a way that sent kids the message that their good results had come from an inherent quality (intelligence) that they were just born with (and was therefore out of their control or capacity to change) was detrimental to their future success, leading them to become risk-averse in order to maintain the perception of their gift; while praising them for their hard work encouraged them to seek out challenges and opportunities to work harder, try again, persist, and grow.

    It was a ten-year study of NY fifth-graders done by psychologist Carol Dweck’s team at Columbia, which concluded that praising kids for intelligence or other “gifts” or “talents” was detrimental to them, as they tended to then avoid challenges and be crushed by failures, while kids who were praised for their efforts and the work they had done tended to seek out greater challenges and see failures as proof that they needed to try harder, instead of proof that they weren’t smart after all.

    See “The Inverse Power of Praise” which appears in New York Magazine and then in the book “NutureShock” (both by Po Bronson with Ashley Merryman).

    That study and other work along the same lines concluded that for praise to be effective (that is, to encourage further growth, future good behavior, future good results) it needs to be specific, tied to the effort or process that brought about the result, not just to the result itself, and it has to be sincere and not overdone or overly-frequent.

    The experiment that Kai was referring to actually went like this:

    Fifth graders were individually given a non-verbal IQ test, using puzzles that were easy enough that the students were expected to do well. The students would finish the puzzles easily, and then the research assistant would tell them their IQ score and give them one line of praise, either saying that the student “must be smart at this”, or saying that the student “must have worked really hard.”

    When it was time for a 2nd test, the students were given a choice of 2 tests. They were told they they could take a more difficult test that they’d learn a lot from attempting, or a test that was as easy as the first. The majority of kids praised for intelligence chose the easy test, while 90% of kids praised for effort chose the harder test.

    In a later round, they weren’t given a choice. All the kids were given a test that was actually 2 grade-levels ahead and that they were all expected to do poorly on (but they weren’t told anything about it). Kids praised for effort in the first round tended to assume that they got poor results this time because they hadn’t focused hard enough, while kids praised for intelligence in the first round tended to see their poor result this time as evidence that they weren’t actually smart after all.

    Then they were all given a final test geared to be as easy as the first. Kids praised for effort in the first round improved their score by 30% this time on this similar test, while kids praised for intelligence in the first round did about 20% worse than they’d done before.

    They’ve repeated the experiments and found that the effects held true across socioeconomic classes, were most pronounced in the brightest girls, and even affected preschoolers.

  62. Jade says:

    Dweck also wrote a book that drew from her findings, called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Her premise is that people either have a Fixed Mindset, believing that they have a fixed level of intelligence or talent which their future possibilities of success are tied to; or a Growth Mindset, believing that they can apply their own efforts toward building intelligence or building skills and abilities, so that their future success is directly tied to their efforts, not whatever “gifts” they were born with.

    Similar to the “10,000-hour Rule” from Malcom Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” proposing that the key to success in any field is to spend 10,000 hours practicing the specific tasks of that field. He points to The Beatles playing 1200 gigs during 4 years in Germany before returning to England and becoming stars, and Bill Gates getting on a school computer at 13 to begin years and years of practice at programming.

    It’s not about ignoring results or performance. It’s about praising the results or the performance as the outcome of effort, and not as the outcome of inherent intelligence or talent or gifts.

    Gifts may give you a head-start, but only consistent long-term effort and growth will lead to lasting success. Praising gifts actually discourages effort and growth, and can shutdown a person’s potential, whether they’re a kid or an adult.

  63. Kai says:

    @Doug (#43)
    “Employers don’t pay for “hard work.” They pay for results. The better the result, the better the pay.”
    Very true. And that is why expectations should change with age. It is not any more helpful to praise your teenager just for giving it a shot than it is to punish your preschooler for ignorance. Age-appropriate rewards matter.

    But if you want a teenager who will push themselves, and work hard, and produce good results – of the meaningful kind, it helps to treat a young child differently.

  64. Charles Cohn says:

    The trouble with delayed gratification is that if you overdo it, you die before the gratification comes. Or even of you don’t die, you get so decrepit that you can’t enjoy what you might have enjoyed when you were younger.

  65. ITGuy says:

    You want to talk about delayed gratification? Talk about picking a pitcher for fantasy baseball that was still in the minors at the start of the season. But, when he makes his debut, he strikes out 14, hits 100MPH on numerous pitches, walks ZERO, and gets the W. Congrats on that pick man, hope you started him!

  66. Evangeline says:

    I would imagine that one of the reasons to have a blog might be to encourage discussion and that has certainly been accomplished with this article. But a lot of this is crap. If you want to take your free time and knit, garden, refurbish an antique car, read or whatever then just do it. If you’re taking your free time and watching a ball game, talking on the phone, reading recipe books, then do that. All this nitpicking is so fifth grade playground silliness. It’s an article about delayed gratification not who’s activity is better than another’s. Geez, get back to the subject at hand. Many many things lead to delayed gratification. Leave it at that.

  67. rxtx says:

    Trent, have you ever considered that reading might be your timesink? I don’t see much difference between spending large amounts of time watching TV compared to spending large amounts of time reading, if you assume that the content being consumed is of the same ‘quality’

  68. margaret says:

    Although some kids were naturally better at delayed gratification than others, the researcher that I read about suggested that it might be possible to teach coping skills that would help a child with delayed gratification. For example, some kids would obviously try to wait, but they did it by staring intensely at the treat. This turns out to be a bad strategy because the treat is all they think about. Some kids would try by looking away or singing songs or doing other things to distract themselves. They were more successful. I think for some tests, the kids who couldn’t wait were taught some coping skills and retested with more success.

  69. Jon says:

    Is it delayed gratification if you watch TV instead of going out to buy a brand new book that you really really want, while waiting for a copy to show up at the library?

  70. Larabara says:

    I agree with Charles @46 on one thing, and that’s travel. My elderly uncle advised me that if I wanted to travel the world, and see the sights, then I should do it while I was young enough to fully enjoy the traveling experience. When you are too old to travel, your physical limitations will severely limit your enjoyment.

  71. Emily says:

    My husband linked me to this article. We have a 2 year old, and it has definitely been tough teaching delayed gratification. He’ll cry if he has to wait for his macaroni and cheese to cool off before we serve it to him.

    I especially liked your last point, Trent, about the rewarding the effort versus the outcome. Author Po Bronson has a really good book called “nurture shock” that has a chapter on this topic. Great reading for parents.

    Emily

  72. Cree says:

    Off topic – Hehe very tough readers today, they want their gratification now damn it!

    On topic-
    I remember prizing a few possessions as a kid, things I’d waited long and hard to get. Money being less available then, my parents had no choice but to wait until they could afford it.
    I wanted my kids to have a sense of value, not just “buy me that”. As we can afford to buy the kids things whenever we want to, it does take some discipline to teach them the value of a purchase.

    Scenario: My 4yo wanted a bike. Being a physical activity, we really wanted her to have one. Her birtday is just after Christmas, so it was a long wait to make it a present.
    We instead came up with a “bicycle chart” – we drew a big picture of a bike, and 50 squares underneath it. Everynight, we talked about the very good things she’d done that day, and rewarded her with squares. Not expected tasks (like getting dressed) but special actions. She coloured in/stamped/pasted/etc how ever many squares she’d been rewarded.
    When the chart was full, we took it to the bike shop and she chose a bike. We were very proud of her for earning the bike, and she was very proud of herself.

  73. Courtney says:

    Just wanted to say that after reading your bit about Magna-Tiles, I picked up some for my 2 year old daughter, and she *loves* them. It’s especially nice that she can play with other people with them and that they don’t have any logos on them. Thanks for the recommendation.

  74. Fidget says:

    Constructing reading as something that’s inherently good and tv as something inherently bad is…well, the nice word would be irritating, at best. Past a certain age/level of literacy, reading for the sake of reading, just to be someone who “isn’t watching tv” isn’t all that beneficial. And trashing people who watch tv is easier to see as ridiculous when you replace tv with film.
    TV also has more social/socializing potential than reading. I know my boyfriend and I don’t sit quietly and watch programs; we watch Boston Legal with plenty of pauses for discussion and debate that is often more valuable to my intellectual life than my private reading.
    Getting my doctorate in comparative literature, you’d be surprised how often television is academically relevant. Nevermind the social aspects…if you can be someone who doesn’t watch tv and not mistake that for moral virtue on your part, great, but most non-watchers brag about it every chance they get. What’s more cringe-worthy: spending an hour of your time to watch a trashy tv show, or 10 hours to read a Dan Brown novel? Why do people brag about choosing the latter?

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