How I’m Teaching My Kids to Delay Gratification (Marshmallows Included)

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Last spring I was holed up in my office writing my book. One night I took a break and came up into our kitchen and called my youngest daughter. I asked 3 year old Olivia, “would you like a marshmallow?” Of course she would. I pulled the squishy white candy out of the pantry and put one in her hand.

Then I offered her a chance to eat two of her favorite corn syrupy treats. I said, “Olivia, you can have two marshmallows, instead of one, if you are willing to wait and eat them later. You can give me the one back, we’ll go play awhile and then come back and you can have two. Would you like to do that? Or do you want to eat the one you have? One or two?”

She shook her head no to indicate that she didn’t want my two marshmallow deal. Her mouth was too full of white goo to articulate “no thanks, mom.”

The Marshmallow Study

In the late 1960s and early 70s Walter Mischel led a team of Stanford researchers in a series of experiments similar to what I did with Olivia, dubbed the marshmallow study. They offered 3, 4 and 5 years a choice. They could eat a single marshmallow right now. Or, they could wait alone in a room, just them and the marshmallow, until the researcher returned bearing two delicious treats. Only 30% of the 650+ kids successfully resisted the tempting marshmallow for the 15 minute wait and enjoyed two tasty marshmallows.

The most interesting thing about this marshmallow study is what Mischel finds 15+ years later. He and his team track down the kids, then young adults, that participated. They studied these young adults. How did they cope with problems? What capacity do they have to plan? How well do they get along with peers? What were their SAT scores?

Surprisingly, the 3, 4 and 5 year old kids that had an ability to wait for two marshmallows scored better in every area they surveyed. Translated into Carrie-speak, the kids who had the umph, the hootzpah, the self-control to wait for two marshmallows had better outcomes in life than those who couldn’t wait.

Marshmallows and Money

“I’ve failed as a parent” is what I thought as Olivia walked away happily chomping her marshmallow. “My daughter can’t delay gratification and I’m not sure what to do about it.” (Yes, I know that I’m prone to drama in my thoughts. It wasn’t quite as fatal a situation as it seemed in that moment.)

My thoughts were consumed for days by the powerful correlation between a preschoolers ability to delay gratification and his/her success in life as an adult. In my own mind I extrapolated Meschel’s results of improved SAT scores, increased social skills and better problem solving abilities to mean a better financial future – better foresight and financial planning, earning higher incomes and prudent spending habits – for two-marshmallow kids.

Those are the kind of kids I am trying to raise. Kids who can sit in front of a single marshmallow for 15 minutes and wait for the opportunity to get two marshmallows instead. But how?

Raising Two-Marshmallow Kids

I’ve got a long way to go before my girls have their own bank accounts and their first jobs. Yet, Meschel’s study convinced me that right now, in their preschool/early elementary years, I have got to teach them some fundamental lessons about money. Yet they are too young to understand the abstract nature of money. Hmmm…it seemed like a quandary until I realized that they do have currencies within their control, but none of them are legal tender.

TV time is our main trading currency right now. Each day my girls are allowed to watch two 30-minute television shows. Taking the marshmallow study to heart, I started allowing them to bank their TV time. If they forgo 30 minutes today, then they can have 90 minutes tomorrow. Ninety minutes feels like a bigger deal than 60 because it’s enough time to watch a full-length film on Netflix. And hey, that beats two episodes of Caillou any day, right?

I also let them trade their TV time for other things, much like you trade your money for groceries and gasoline. If they give me 30 minutes of TV time, then they can have an extra chapter in their bedtime chapter book.

The Moral of the Story

I learned two major lessons from the Stanford marshmallow study:

  • It is my job as a parent to teach delayed gratification to my kids (and by “teach” I also mean model and demonstrate) . It is never too early, nor is it ever too late, to intentionally train my children to wait. I don’t think the skill falls out of the sky on to their head.
  • I can teach financial lessons without using money. The skill of waiting is universal – whether waiting for a marshmallow, a full-length film on Netflix or to save for a desired purchase.

What do you think? Were you taught to delay gratification or no? Would you have been able to wait for two marshmallows? How have you trained your kids, young or old, to wait?

About Carrie Rocha

I am passionate about helping people live within their means so they can get out and stay out of debt. I live in Minneapolis, MN with my husband and two little girls.

Comments

  1. Hi Carrie:

    I love this story! It's quite insightful. I've always believed that parents are to set the best example for their children. Kids are way more insightful than most people think, and they start at a very young age noticing behaviors, reactions and how one handles certain situations. Most of all, TALK TO YOUR KIDS! Teach them and clearly define expectations and provide them with the answers as to WHY you expect it. I cannot stress how important it is to sit down and have a meal together. (I actually get a little cranky when our meal time gets postponed or screwed up because of a change in schedules; however, with two teenagers, its difficult due to the many activities.) In any event, talk to your kids and always, always, always tell them the truth. (You may have to be a little vague should the topic require it if not age appropriate .) I'd rather my children ask my husband and me than ask friends or other outside sources and get the wrong information.

  2. This is great, Carrie. Eli and I tried a version of the marshmallow test on Uriah about a month ago and he failed miserably, so of course I thought we'd failed as parents. :)

    But you're right – delayed gratification is something they need to be taught. I read a great book on parenting earlier this month and it's really made me pause and think about WHY we're making the parenting choices that we do and how those choices affect our children. Just taking a moment to think and plan instead of just reacting to every situation has done a world of good so far.

    I love the idea of looking at different things as "currency." It could be a snack, it could be a toy, it could be time. All of those can be used to teach kids lessons about managing what they have and not thinking everything is just going to be given to them. Thanks for sharing!

  3. We do exactly what you are doing Carrie but with a twist. We bought bright colored poker chips and used them as screen currency. We have 4 colors of chips and each has a denomination of screen time. Blue is worth 1/2 hour, red 1 hour, green family movie and yellow movie theater outting. The love to collect as many as possible and get that next "level". I also unexpectedly reward them with a chip when they go above and beyond my expectations and show extraordinary compassion, courage, sportsmanship, etc. I also allow them to cash them in for $ to purchase parent approved items. We started out really simple and evolved into our current system as my boys have grown.

  4. If anybody is looking ideas on what to use for currencies, The Nurtured Heart parenting approach by Howard Glasser has a great list of ideas. His books can be found at the local libraries, so no need to buy.

  5. In the early '80s our parents were great at this, esp. when we were going someplace with extra temptation. They would prep us before we set foot in the arcade or theme park etc. by telling us exactly what or how much they were going to spend on us. I have memories of walking around watching other kids play video games for 1/2 an hour before I had decided which one I was going to use my precious quarters on, b/c I knew once they were gone I'd get no more. We actually came to enjoy the process of watching & deciding as much as spending (of course I'm no good at video games! ;)

  6. For us our boys get to choose between a run to Target or a run to the computer for something off of Amazon.

    They have outgrown the instant satisfaction of Target/Walmart, etc on most of the occasions with the exception of fishing lure purchases with the opener being just a couple of weeks away.

    More times than not, they are happy knowing they are getting something in the mail that they desire greatly.

    Sadly, food (treats) have never been a motivator for anything in our home. Marshmallows are so much cheaper! LOL

  7. Stefanie DesRocher says:

    When we give our kids spending money or when they have birthday/holiday money to spend, we try to teach this concept. They usually want to spend their money on the first thing they see. We encourage them to wait and look around. Suggesting that maybe they would find something they liked better. Sometimes it works and they happily find something better to spend their money on. When they don't shop around, they usually regret spending their money so quickly.

  8. Funny thing about this is that they've done similar studies in adults, offering them a monetary reward of less money now, and more later. More adults than not choose the "now" option–and interestingly, there is a correlation between those who choose that option and what they've saved for retirement! Looking back, my parents did a great job of teaching delayed gratification through visuals. When I was about 7 and my sister 10, we desperately wanted a bunny. Our parents encouraged us to draw a chart marking our progress towards the money we needed to save to make it happen–including cost of a hutch, food, the rabbit itself, etc. I think they actually never thought we would get there, but we did. Though the lesson my have had more to do with hoping we'd lose interest eventually, we didn't, and it probably has alot to do with why I'm a personal finance writer now!

  9. Dona Collins says:

    I love this and I think it's great (especially the way you allow them to trade TV time). The only thing that struck me as odd was at the end where you said they can trade TV time for extra bedtime reading chapters. Considering how tough it is to get kids to read these days, I was surprised that was even up for trade. Thoughts?

    • Dona – Maybe I wasn't clear. They cannot buy more TV time. They can spend their TV time to get MORE reading time. We always read a certain amount, but sometimes they want me to read an extra chapter in whatever book we're in (we're going through the Laura Ingalls books now). So they can forgo a show and get an extra chapter, which takes 10-15 minutes and means they stay up a little later too.

      It's fine with me if you think this is odd, but I'm wondering if we had a miscommunication and this clarification helps.

  10. I hate marshmellows, even as a child. They hold no temptation for me at all. That said, I teach Declan (8 years old) to delay gratification with… money. We've been doing this for about 4 years now.

    Various goals are set to earn coins which are then put into a book called Coin Count-y, a Bank in a Book. It has coin slots in the pages and holds $20.23 when it's full. Then we move the coins into Larry Burket's bank that has three compartments: Church, Store, and Bank. We put 10% into Church and Bank, and the rest goes in the store.

    Declan can choose to go to the store with the $16 dollars in the "store" compartment at that point and buy a toy, or he can decide to wait for more money to get a bigger toy. We also teach him bargain hunting by hitting garage sales when we can.

    I think pretty soon we need to move the coins from the bank section into a real account, because he's already trying to understand how interest works…

  11. I'm wondering how to mediate 3 kids wanting to watch th same or different TV shows at the same time. They are 4.5 y.o. triples. We have to rotate EVERYTHING! I like th idea of TV or movie currency, I'm just not sure how to work it. Ideas?

  12. Love these ideas–wish I would have started younger. Any ideas on how to start delayed gratification 'life lessons" with older children (11-13 year olds)? They want/need the latest and greatest in everything, from sports equipment to technology and we have become increasingly frustrated with the begging, whinning to get these items.

    • Just my personal opinion. It's really hard to change kids behavior at that age. By the time they the habits already set in, it's so hard to break! And it's not only you want your kids to change but you have to change yourself a lot! If you really want to change this dynamic, you can say we all stop buying new things period! Just imagine how hard it would be also for you to change. If you can change yourself, maybe you can change your kid too! I'm telling it from my experience. Despite getting everything in class, I had really hard time finishing college. It was always fun for me to go for shopping or sit in front of TV etc…But I married a brilliant engineer who is so good at delayed gratification. He used to be a 4.0 GPA student and he is from India. To be honest immersing in his culture I really see how they get trained in delayed gratification. By age 2 he saved up for my daughter's college, and he is saving for my 2nd daughters college fund. Our daughter's are 3 and 5 mo old. (I know he makes good $, but I also know his american colleagues who make same $, are deep in debt, no retirement, college savings for their kids but a lot of nice things and a big house!) He'd never pay interest for credit cards, or buy a new car. It's not a priority for him. Indian mothers would cook almost 100% at home no matter how tired they are. If these are not an example for the delayed gratification what is. Even though, I'm not a delayed gratification success story, I take it very seriously for my kids. I don't allow my 3 yr old to watch TV other than Sat, Sun. She can have 5hrs of TV time on the weekends. ( I learned it from Michelle Obama, you can search about it on the web.) Because it's so hard to stop them watching TV everyday after 30 min. It just doesn't happen that way! and we both own prepaid phones, so our kid doesn't get to our phone. We very rarely buy them toys, and from the beginning we celebrated our daughter's b'day " no gift" celebration. Instead, we make a donation to "smile train" each year. it's so rewarding to see how it ($) changed a life of a child instead of buying new toys! Of course, we're not perfect at these, all but I can already see the changes my kids know they are just not supposed to watch tv on weekdays and they get really really excited when our friends give them gifts on rare occasions and I know they'll have their college fund saved up, and I'll not be spending my time nagging and I'm OK with that!

  13. This is a great topic. Thanks for sharing.

    I have four children and each of them has their own personality when it comes to "things"(money, TV currency or otherwise). But one thing my children have picked up on is "sharing the cost". My children get paid for the work they do around the house. But when the choice comes down to a pack of mambas or a drink it usually gets split between two siblings. 'You buy the mambas and I will buy the drink, then we will share'. I have used it for TV time, also. They essentially share the cost of the show so they have time left over for another show later. I try to encourage sharing whenever I can because not only is it necessary to delay gratification but understanding how much is "enough" is a big one, too. Some lessons seem to take a life-time of learning.

  14. My 13yr at a the young age of 5 felt her money meant her rules she should be able to spend it as she wished with no concept of what happens when I want something but my money is gone. So we struck a deal. At this point most of her money was birthday…and the occasional payment for a chore. 50% went into the bank and charity envelopes and could not be spent without approval. The remaining was hers to spend as she wished with these guide lines. We could still veto the purchase if it was inappropriate. When she was out of money she was out of luck until she had some more come in we would not lend her money on her future earnings. She learned with some pain to hold on to some of her money for that next thing she just has to have. She still wants the latest and the greatest but thinks about what is worth it and what is not. So now we decide what is a fair price to pay and if she wants the up grade she pays example: My husband researched phones and felt the Galaxy was the best value. "EVERYBODY has an I-Phone" she pays the extra cost and gets her I-phone. I'm proud of how she has come along when she goes to the mall with friends they all look for deals and talk about q's for lunch and at the different stores they are going to.

  15. Sara,

    My kids are 14 and 17 years old. We started noticing the same patterns a few years ago. At the same time, we woke up and were realizing that we needed to make drastic changes in our financial lives. For those big ticket items that they just have to have, we tell them what we are willing to spend, and they need to make up the difference, like Martha does with her daughter. They save their money and have to decide. My kids have both learned to shop the sales and even the thrift store for the name brands they want. My daughter wanted those ridiculously priced MissMe jeans and bought a pair at Plato's Closet for $30 vs. $100. The novelty has now worn off, so she's ready to trade them back in. My son has decided that he likes the Denizen jeans bought at Target much better than the Hollister jeans. LOL. We buy clothes when they are needed, not just because. So if they have to have a new shirt or whatever, then it's their money.

  16. Here is how we do it. Instead of paying allowance in cash every week, we directly deposit into our kids accounts on Friday. We opened the accounts at the same bank we do our banking. We started each kids accounts with $50. The accounts are debit card transactable. The rules we set up are: 1. the account can never go below $50 2. they are responsible for going online and checking their balance and knowing where they are at 3. when they want to make a major purchase, they need to negotiate with us, we choose whether we will "chip" in and how much and they need to cover the difference. 4. they can deposit and withdraw from an ATM machine (they all learned the hard way that some are free and some are not). Our boys are 10, 13 and 17. It has been interesting to watch their spending/saving habits and we already know who we need to keep a watchful eye on once they move on to college, etc. I love it because when we go to a family movie, or outing I can say, we will buy your entry but treats are on you. 9 out of 10 times they choose to forgo the expense. PS: we do not pay an extraordinary amount in allowance and we no longer have them coming to us and saying you owe me 3 weeks of allowance…..

  17. This is really neat. My daughter is only 2 so everything is NOW. Sometimes I think I am only 2 also I'm super impatient. But I'll try this with her I think it's such a valuable teaching lesson.

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