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Teaching Kids About Delayed Gratification

In the famous “marshmallow experiments” of the early 1970s, researchers at Stanford University gave preschoolers a choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and you’ll get two marshmallows. (Spoiler alert: More than half of them couldn’t wait.) That’s totally normal. Take it from Sigmund Freud: Your kid is driven by id. When a kid sees that new brand of cereal or an awesome new toy, the rest of the world ceases to exist. The craving must be satisfied. Now.

As parents, we need to teach our kids to tame their impulses—and not just because it’s annoying when they keep pleading for more Legos. It’s to help them become competent, successful humans, rather than little gremlins driven solely by their desires.

Learning to control our immediate impulses means the ability to pause and figure out whether a purchase is really worthwhile. Taming that id also helps us understand that we can have (almost) anything we want, but we can’t have everything we want.

Teaching your kid to tame that voice that says now-now-now is important, as long as the lessons are age-appropriate and consistent.

Here are some ways ideas:

1. Give Kids Their Own Money

One of the most fundamental ways to teach a kid how to make smart decisions is to actually let them make decisions. Often, this means encouraging your kid to manage their own money .

2. Help Them Learn From Their Successes and Failures

No bailouts, ever. Let them make those mistakes. My friend remembers when she once forgot her lunch in elementary school and her mom refused to bring it to her: “It seemed pretty hardcore at the time, but you can be sure that I never forgot my lunch again.” In the end, forcing her to own up to her own mistakes changed her behavior over the long haul.

3. Teach Them ‘the Pause’

When your kids really want something, suggest they buy it with their own money. But try asking them to wait a week before making the purchase to make sure they still want it. For two days in a row, your kids might remind you just how much they wanted the toy. Then often they'll forget all about it, and the money stayed will stay in their piggy bank.

This technique is also very effective for adults: Give yourself a cool-off period of a week to see if your desire for that newest tech gadget or kitchen appliance continues to burn bright. .

4. Put Your Money on the Table . . . Literally

If your kids don’t understand that you have bills to pay, try this: As an exercise, cash your paycheck instead of depositing it right away, and spread the money out on a table.

Let your kids get an eyeful: Wow, we’re RICH!

Then start subtracting. “We need X dollars a month for rent/mortgage,” and take that much away. “We need X dollars a month for our car payment, gas, and insurance,” and take that away. “We need X dollars a month for our emergency fund…” and so on and so on.

The idea isn’t to get them worried about how their family’s financial well-being, but to reinforce practical money lessons.

The Bottom Line

Parenthood is about loving our kids, but it’s also about teaching them to (eventually) leave us. That means learning how to take care of themselves.

A crucial life skill is knowing how to handle money—and sometimes that means knowing how to not spend it. This isn’t an easy lesson, so you need to model it consistently. If you don’t, your kids might grow up thinking that debt is both normal and inevitable.

Delayed gratification is a key component of financial independence.


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