Children, especially young children, are creatures of opportunity. They see a lesser prize within their grasp and a much greater prize that they may have to work for, and they will take the lesser prize much more often than not. The ability to defer or delay gratification was studied in the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, and in numerous copies since then, and has been linked with academic competency and professional success.

I have a daughter in the early years of elementary school. She has a tendency to want rewards now, rather than later. To help her develop self control, we have been offering her choices with small rewards (that we normally would have given her as a matter of course) or for a little patience (sometimes work) a much better reward (i.e. 10 more minutes of TV now, or if she brushes her teeth and gets ready for bed of her own accord, 30 minutes afterward).

This has produced somewhat marginal results. Mostly she takes the easy reward. I want her to be successful, and I don't want her to be the sort of person who impulse buys her way into debt, or drops out of college to pursue a moderately paying (but non-professional) job.

How can I instill in her the will-power to work for and be patient for the rewards that come with waiting?

4 Answers 4


I'm not sure this answers you question, but I'll do my best.

BabyCenter's developmental psychologist had this to say:

When evaluating your child's level of self-control, take her temperament into account. This is an age where there may be a wide range of individual differences; some children are naturally more impulsive and less reflective than others. More impetuous children may need extra guidance and reminders, especially in exciting or distracting situations. Similarly, more reflective children may appear more self-controlled, when in fact, they're just more reserved.

Children having difficulty with self-control can benefit from more structured situations and adult coaching. This ability develops with maturity and practice, so although you may be tempted to reprimand your child when she can't control herself, bear in mind that punishment isn't effective in this situation.

She also added:

School-age children show high levels of self-control compared to their younger counterparts. At this age, they can understand the reasoning behind rules so they're more willing and able to conform to parents' and teachers' expectations. They also have a strong sense of fairness, so appealing to what is fair can often overcome their own self-interests.

And, finally, she points out:

Preschoolers work very hard developing self-control and make great strides during these years. They're capable of delaying gratification for short periods of time and when they're not overwhelmed by emotion, they can use words instead of actions to express their feelings and desires.

Demonstrating self-control is quite challenging at this age; kids are still practicing their skills and need a great deal of guidance (and patience) from adults. Providing your child with strategies and giving him reminders is more effective than punishing him for mistakes. Explaining to your son why he can't have a toy he sees in a store, reminding him of the toys he already has at home, and suggesting that he put the toy on his "wish list" are all effective ways of helping him control his strong feelings. Simply saying "no" or threatening punishment if he protests will not give him the mental strategies to cope with the situation. Likewise, teaching your son to use words to ask another child for a toy or a turn on a ride is more effective than just telling him not to grab. Because young children learn through repetition, you may need to remind your son many times before he can control his impulses on his own.

She also consistently cautions that extreme states -- fatigue, hunger, emotional moments -- are often when children have the most trouble maintaining their self control. In my humble opinion, that's not a characteristic limited to children; I get antsy and upset easily when I'm hungry as well.

Also see this larger question.

  • Thank you for the references and links. Perhaps we just need to give it some more time. We strive hard to understand her and keep in mind that she is learning by both our example and our explanation of the way things work. Aug 5, 2011 at 21:23
  • I know you're concerned, but bear in mind that she's 5-6 years old. She has plenty of time to learn and mature before she spends herself into debt or drops out of college. Continue to set a good example, and trust your daughter to want to be like the good people who raised her. She will learn, just give her time. :)
    – Aarthi
    Aug 8, 2011 at 15:17
  • Aarthi, the "Standford marshmallow experiment" ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment) might indicate that one does not have a lot of time with respect to helping small children develop deferred gratification or that perhaps one must do it with more urgency at a young age. Correlation is not causation, but this study might indicate that developing deferred gratification in young children could have profound effects throughout their lives. Sep 10, 2011 at 19:26
  • Ross, my larger point was that her ability to develop delayed gratification aside, her parents setting good examples for her are more likely to keep her from developing debt or dropping out of college. The OP and his partner/significant other being, demonstrating, and rewarding her ability to be patient will, in my humble opinion, give their daughter the skills and values she will need to be successful. Basically, I was trying to tell the OP to have a little faith. :)
    – Aarthi
    Sep 12, 2011 at 1:03

By far the most effective way to teach self-control and the accepting of delayed gratification is to model it.

  • Model Restraint. Not getting the candy they want, but getting the Starbucks you want doesn't teach them anything. Noting that you want your latte or the nice shirt but are choosing not to get it teaches a lot.
  • Model Discipline. Eat well, exercise regularly, don't drink to excess. Take care of your body. Don't insist on dessert after every meal.
  • Model Emotional Control. Don't shout a lot, don't curse at drivers who cut you off. Even when visibly angry, control your behavior.
  • Model Financial Discipline. Have a "piggy bank" or other visible means to save for things you want. Don't make impulse purchases. Have them see you decide not to buy things because the money has a better use.
  • Model Spiritual Discipline. If you are religious, practice the faith.
  • The children copy what you do, so if you want to improve your children, start by improving yourself. The fact that your children copy you should just provide you additional motivation. Oct 8, 2012 at 12:07

Providing natural consequences and age appropriate opportunities for failure within limits is very useful in developing the concept of value and decision-making skills.

This is one of the areas I wish I had known of when my son was a child. Basically, I wanted him to be a success and I would pay a great price for it. I was convinced that I could help him be a success by helping him when he came up short. By "helping" with projects that he procrastinated on or delivering his "forgotten" items promptly so he would not face the consequences, I actually reinforced the opposite mindset that I desired. He was very intelligent and understood that he could easily get by with less than optimal effort since I would always fill in his slack.

Training in Active Parenting Now and Active Parenting for Teens helped me understand ways to implement supportive parenting strategies. You can check these programs out at http://www.activeparenting.com/

BTW, my son managed to turn out rather well in spite of me. :-)


Thanks for asking! It sounds like your overall goal is to help your child develop *in*trinsic motivation, meaning that her sense of motivation comes from within. And, yet, it sounds like you are using *ex*ternal motivators (rewards). I would suggest steering away from these rewards because everything we know about how to motivate kids is that these incentives actually decrease a person's long-term interest and success in the activity. (check out Carol Dweck's work)

If you want her to learn self-care, such as brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed, what are you doing to teach her these skills? She could make a bedtime routing chart in whatever way she likes to help remind her of the steps. You could do role-plays and practice (make it silly and fun!). Especially with bed time, routines are essential! You can use that stuff from the dentist that shows the places you missed when brushing.

The rewards will be her own sense of accomplishment and pride. You can help her develop and practice self-reflection by modeling this behavior on her behalf: "You must be proud of being able to take care of yourself now", "I notice you've been brushing your teeth every night.", "thank you for taking care of your bedtime routine so we can have time to read books and snuggle."

As far as money and things, I would also involve her in the family budget. I'm not sure how old she is, but as much as possible, let her be involved in how to spend the budget on a grocery trip. Of course you have veto power, but genuinely involve her. Ask her for help, "how can we best use our money to keep our family health and well-fed?". The more you involve her in long-term planning and decision-making, the more practice she will have. And, the extra bonus is that you will be connecting with her and spending meaningful time together!

I would recommend reading Positive Discipline, and Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World They are great resources grounded in mutual respect, and the sooner you start the better off you'll be!

  • Hi Christine, and welcome to the site! I think this, and your other answers so far, are fantastic. However, I am editing out the signatures from your answers, as overt self-promotion is generally frowned upon, and signatures in general aren't really appropriate in answers (your profile serves as your signature).
    – user420
    Oct 25, 2012 at 15:01

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