The widely reported "Marshmallow Test" research, developed by Dr. Walter Mischel, showed that kids who practice delayed gratification tend to have higher test scores, better social skills and better health. (Think: Study before watching TV and you get better grades.) And the good news is, the more you do it, the better you get at it. “It's like exercising a muscle," says Dr. Baumeister.
Here are five simple ways to teach your kids this all-important skill:
1. Mark time
Sow the seeds of delayed gratification by giving toddlers and preschoolers their own calendars and noting special occasions that are coming up: birthdays or family events, outings to a concert or the zoo. If you don't have anything scheduled, plan something for several weeks away. Regularly talk about the event with your child (who's going, what they'll see) and mark off each square on the calendar until the big day arrives.
This simple practice will not only reassure young children that those far-away events are, in fact, going to happen, but also it will (eventually) boost their patience quotient and teach them that anticipating an activity or an item can make it more enjoyable.
2. Provide low-key chances to practice
Give young kids concrete chances to experience the benefits of delayed gratification — and to develop a sense of mastery over their own behavior — by offering opportunities for them to practice self-control. You might tell your preschooler you have time to go to the park for 20 minutes now, or for 45 minutes after dinner, for instance. Even if he opts for immediate gratification at first, over time he'll realize patience has more of a payoff.
Dr. Baumeister adds, however, “Special treats and rewards should be earned. Only provide them after some job is done or some success [is] achieved." Translation: Have your kids work for that shiny new toy or extra time in front of the TV.
3. Share smart strategies
Self-control doesn't translate into willpower alone. In fact, researchers now know that people who successfully resist temptations rely on savvy strategies to meet their goals. A few proven techniques for helping kids save money and head off impulse buys at the store include:
- If your child wants to buy something, suggest she wait at least a week before purchasing it. By then, passions will have cooled and she'll know if she truly wants it.
- If she's begging for you to buy an item for her, reframe her expectations by putting that item on a birthday or holiday wish list. Then be sure to follow through. Studies show kids won't delay gratification if they don't believe you'll be true to your word.
- If your child is having a hard time saving for a big purchase, put a picture of it on her piggy bank or on a poster in her room. The visual reminder will help her pinch her pennies to reach her goal.
- Teach an older teen not to carry a credit or debit card when she knows she might be tempted to spend too much money.
4. Arm them with an allowance
By the age of five or six, most kids are ready to handle an allowance and, if you make them responsible for purchasing nonessentials ranging from gum to the latest PlayStation game, they'll glean the lessons of saving, spending and budgeting while the stakes are still low.
It's important for kids to “learn to save money and take pride in how it accumulates," says Dr. Baumeister. The key: Give them just enough to cover any basic expenses you expect them to pay for, plus a little more. After all, you want them to have to save up to purchase larger items — with no bailouts from you. Your kids will quickly learn that if they buy every bauble that catches their eye, they won't have the reserves needed for more meaningful purchases down the road.
5. Show them the power of saving
The lesson: Invest your money today and you can do way more with it tomorrow. Drive that point home by letting your kids play around with an online compound interest calculator.
At investor.gov, they can see how much money they would make if they save $10, $20 or $50 each month. Your children might be shocked to discover that if they save just $200 a month from age 18 to age 68 earning 5% interest, they would wind up with $502,435. A whopping $382,435 would be from interest. This is an illustration and your interest rates and results may vary.