Family Matters
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Family Matters

How Delayed Gratification Brings Your Kids to Better Future after 20 Years

“Why can’t I unwrap all my Christmas presents on Boxing Day? Those are all my presents!”

Image by Yvette Fang from Pixabay

That’s what I have always asked and bargained with my mum years ago when I was young. Back in those days, under my mum’s rules, I was only allowed to unwrap one present per day starting from Boxing Day. That’s why I hated receiving clothes as Christmas presents, as a child with one and only one chance every day, you can imagine how disappointed I would be if I aimed at opening my Barbie set but got a new blue jacket instead.

That probably have driven me crazy, “Are you serious? I got to pick a new one again in 24 hours! A jacket for today? Seriously?”

Let’s put aside the terrible memories from the blue jacket. After a couple of years I finally know what gave my mum this idea, the concept of delayed gratification. That’s what my mum learnt from an educational psychologist in a parenting course, and when I look back over my life, it makes sense.

Not sure if any of you have heard about the Marshmallow Experiment, it was a classic psychology experiment conducted in 1970s. Children participating in the experiment were asked to sit in front of a marshmallow, if they could resist the temptation and wait for a certain period of time, they could be rewarded with an additional one. Researchers later found that most kids who were able to resist the instant gratification from the marshmallow in front of them, had better achievement in the future. The ability to choose long-term reward over instant gratification, or give up what we want at this moment for something better in the future, can be known as delayed gratification.

So, my mum’s answer to my first question at the very beginning was, “This acts as training, to elevate your ability on resisting temptation and immediate gratification.”

For sure, at that time I hated this joke. Till the year when I was 15, I was preparing for my ATCL piano examination, I finally realised that the training is not a joke. The ability of delayed gratification helped me through the dull and repeating practices, with a distinction as the very first and a nice enough reward brought by the Christmas present training.

Let’s not make this into a legend, it’s also not a button towards success, let’s have a brief understanding on how this may work with the following tips:

  1. You got to have a secondary reward

While delayed gratification means giving up instant gratification for better future rewards, to achieve this you should have a nice secondary reward. Back in the day, I was aiming to pass the ATCL piano examination at the age of 15, the sense of satisfaction was large enough as a secondary reward.

To achieve this, I give up gratification from having other entertainment or free time, but to practice those examination pieces over and over again. Though years later, I did not find this challenge meaningful apart from awarding me a paper certificate, it gave me enough motivation and determination to fight the temptation of immediate gratification.

2. Have faith over future uncertainty

The secondary reward was valid because I believed that I will pass the ATCL piano examination if I worked hard, though the outcome was not guaranteed. If I did not believe in the final success, there would be no future reward in this case, so resisting immediate temptation would be meaningless. Humans had fear and a tendency of running away from uncertainty, we vote for stable and more foreseeable outcomes.

Undoubtedly, innate character traits may determine whether you have strong faith in future uncertainty or not, the encouragement and positive education from parents or teachers act as a critical variable in this case too. In recent years, strength-based approaches are widely promoted in education as well as parenting, the potential huge positive outcomes should not be underestimated.

3. Trust yourself

It is always an issue of self-efficacy, how children view their own capability is correlated to the faith in personal future success. How well can I achieve? If you trust yourself as a person who can achieve the ultimate goal after hard work, your goals seem much more achievable. In which, it will be easier to persuade yourself to wait for a better future.

Building a positive self-concept is therefore essential starting from early education. How children view themselves had a certain relationship with their behaviour, as well as their future success.

4. The process of waiting is not miserable

Waiting is the process to the next destination, do you or do your kid value what you have experienced over the course of attaining your ultimate goal? Result-oriented people have most of their attention over the final outcome. However, apart from the result, there are also learnings in the process.

Even if I failed my ATCL piano examination, it did not mean I got nothing from this experience. It was the perspective of how I view the secondary reward. Repeatedly practicing was dull, my leisure time was sacrificed but the larger reward would be a valuable learning opportunity. No matter it was a success or a failure, my life was enriched with these memories, I experienced how precious it was to uphold a goal with determination through the year.

It is a matter of how you view success, how you determine whether you got the extra marshmallows or not. Encourage your kids to value the learning process, live with a growth mindset, start changing their own mindset and then passing the value to the next generation and society.

The piano ATCL examination was just the beginning of my life story related to delayed gratification. The power of the Christmas present training was observed more frequently in the stage where no one force you to hand in homework or request you to complete certain tasks. It was when I became a young adult, no more school regulations in the society, no more framework for leading you to the so-called success, it was time to examine your self-control.

When you graduate and enter the society, it seems like no boundaries, no standards, no marking schemes.

At what level will I be evaluated as a successful person among people of my age?
Should I keep working hard after work for a better career development?
Should I give up this McDonald set and have some more workouts for my health?
Should I try not to care too much about how I get paid but involve in this project for my long-term career development?

You never know, and there is never a best answer, but understanding the concept of delayed gratification makes me easier to get through these questions. At least, I can do my best for my own’s sake, for a little bit better and more satisfying future.




A publication for parents and families of all types to share their experiences.

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Hong Kong writer | She is a coffee lover. She writes about mental health, lifestyles, careers, education articles… Grap a cup of coffe and start reading!

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