Back in 2012, I wrote a post about the famous marshmallow test, and how developing delayed gratification and executive function are crucial to a person’s success and happiness. Charlie is at the same age as the kids that were tested, so I think about that marshmallow test a lot, and whether or not he would have waited for that second marshmallow.

Even though I grew up without the internet and a cell phone, I’m guilty of constantly seeking instant gratification myself. For instance I can’t stand commercials when I’m watching Hulu, and I’m always surfing my phone when I’m waiting instead of just thinking or relaxing. So how do we teach our kids about delayed gratification in an increasingly fast-paced and digital society?

Since I’m a nostalgic person, I’ve thought a lot about the experiences that taught us delayed gratification when we were growing up that our kids will never experience.

– Betting vs. Google. When you knew you were right about something and your friend challenged you, you made a bet. Then you found out the answer either by waiting to ask other people, or looking it up in a book or encyclopedia (another thing that’s obsolete). Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out the answer with complete certainty (like when my friends and I used to debate song lyrics). Now kids have access to the answers to everything at their fingertips.

– Waking up to watch cartoons. We didn’t have cable growing up, and we had to wake up bright and early Saturday morning to watch cartoons. My brother and I devised a system – I would get to watch what I wanted one day, and he would get to watch what he wanted the next day. If there was something on during the other person’s day that you really wanted to watch, you would have to give up two… or more of your days. This type of interaction was actually practicing executive function because we came up with the rules and negotiated them. Nowadays of course kids can watch anything they want at anytime… without commercials.

– Commercials – The other day Charlie was watching a youtube video. A 15 second commercial came on and he started complaining. When I was a kid (walking 5 miles to school in the snow with no shoes), we had to watch 3 minutes of commercials, multiple times during a show. It was enough time to go to the bathroom, make a snack, and debate what was going to happen next.

– Renting videos. Going to the video store and debating whose turn it was to pick out the movie, or why you should rent one movie over another was something we all did. We often asked the clerks for help with the best movies because we didn’t know every movie that was out, and there certainly was no Rotten Tomatoes. Movies used to take years before they came out on VHS. Now we just watch movies instantly at home, and they seem to be available on dvd just a couple months after they were released in theaters.

– Printing pictures vs digital camera. I loved taking pictures, dropping off the film, and eagerly looking through the pictures to find moments that you had forgotten because the film had been in the camera so long. Now we document every moment of every day on our phones (totally guilty of this) and can see the pictures instantly, so pictures have lost some of what made them special. We’re documenting everything instead of experiencing them.

– Entertainment-free car rides. My family went on an obscene amount of road trips. We didn’t have any dvd players or toys, but we never had problems keeping ourselves entertained making up all kinds of games — another great way to develop executive function skills.

– Free Play. Like pretty much all the kids in my neighborhood, we had countless hours of free play growing up. There was no adult supervision. We played games, rode bikes, climbed trees. This is where I feel the biggest loss for my kids. Children have far less unstructured free play now than they did a generation ago because they’re involved in so many organized activities, schools are much more demanding at a much younger age, and we parent differently now… we can’t just let our 5 year olds play outside unsupervised like I did when I was a kid.

– Waiting for a phone call. Do you remember calling a friend’s house and having to speak to their parents first? Or not even knowing whether or not they were home? Or leaving a message on an answering machine and waiting for a call back? With cell phones, texts, im, instagram, facebook…. we know where everyone is pretty much all the time.

– Mix tapes. The energy, time, and dedication that went into creating a perfect mix tape! I used to hit record on my Sony radio before a song started. If it was a song that I didn’t like, then I would rewind and start the process all over with the next song. Once I had all the songs I wanted, I’d record them one by one onto another cassette tape in the perfect order/theme. What a labor of patience and love! Now of course you can listen to any song you want any time you want.

– Getting lost. I once discovered one of the best beaches I’d ever been to in my life because I got lost. Nowadays something like that is highly unlikely to happen since I use GPS to get to whatever destination I’m headed.

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So how do we teach our kids delayed gratification? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past year as Charlie gets older. He’s starting kindergarten in the fall and academically he’s always done great, but his one weak area has been staying in his seat and following directions. Executive function means not only being able to delay gratification, but also being able to control one’s impulses and emotions. Working on these skills will help our kids succeed in school and life.

These are the ways we plan on helping our kids learn delayed gratification:

1) Reward charts are a great way to have kids earn something they want. We’ve used sticker charts with great success. When Charlie wants something like a Captain America action figure, he has to earn it through good behavior. He loves to count his stickers each day and gets excited as the number goes up. I think the waiting and the knowing that he earned something makes it much more valuable than if we had just given it to him.

2) Calendars not only teach kids about time, they can help them look forward to special events. Charlie crosses off one day on his calendar before bedtime each night. This not only gives him a tangible representation of the passage of time, but helps him look forward to special days in the future like a beach day or a birthday.

3) Saving Money. Charlie has been fascinated by money for a while now, and I think it’s time to buy him a clear piggy bank. When he saves up his own money that he earned for something that he wants to buy, it’ll mean infinitely more to him than if we had purchased it.

4) Pen Pals. In this age of instant communication, I think there’s still a place for good old fashioned snail mail. Charlie has already exchanged letters with several friends and with one of his closest friends moving cross country this month, they’ll continue to send each other letters (although right now it is just drawings with each other’s names on it).

5) Small delayed rewards. You can build anticipation by talking about small rewards, whether it’s a tangible reward like a treat at the end of the day for being good, or an experience like going to the playground. This is an easy way to incorporate delayed gratification into daily life. We don’t have to give something to our kids right away. Telling them they’ll get something at the end of the day or the next day provides opportunities to talk about patience and waiting, and it gives them something to look forward to.

6) Ordering things online. This one is a little counterintuitive, but ordering things online actually teaches Charlie about delayed gratification. When I buy something online, like a lunchbox we selected together for instance, we talk about the process of the lunchbox reaching our home. When Charlie was younger, he would ask if something was here yet immediately after we ordered it. That’s why I started explaining the entire process of how a package ends up at our home – the company puts the lunchbox in a bigger box and wraps it. The mailman picks up the box and it gets put on an airplane. The airplane comes to our city. Then another mailman picks up the box, puts it in his truck, and brings it to our house. In the days that we’re waiting for the delivery, we’re constantly talk about what we purchased and where in the process the package might be.

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What’s interesting is that Olive seems to be pretty good about delaying gratification. When we give the kids a piece of gum, Charlie asks for a second one. Olive meanwhile always holds onto the second piece, and usually ends up giving it back to us 15 minutes later! She’s the one with the delays, but I think she may end up being the one who truly surprises us!

Do you teach delayed gratification to your kids?