Teaching Self-Discipline and Self-Control with Marshmallows? The Importance of Teaching Kids About Delayed Gratification

I’ve often found delaying instant gratification can be a tough personal trait to exercise as an a adult. So it got me wondering about how our kids deal with this crucial thought process. And better yet, what can we do as parents to help this very important personal trait which will ultimately help our kids live a happy, successful and fulfilling life?

Building Better Futures… One Marshmallow at a Time!


Now you might have already heard of the ‘marshmallow experiment‘or a variation of it, which examines a child’s ability to hold out to receive an increased reward. If you don’t already know, the study basically consisted of a rather simple experiment which clearly displayed a child’s ability (or inability) at a young age to recognize the importance of delayed gratification. Each child was presented with a marshmallow and then told if they did not eat that marshmallow while the researcher was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow when the researcher returned. However, the flipside is if the child decided to go ahead and eat the first marshmallow before the researcher came back, then the child would not get that second marshmallow…

Marshmallow test: Teaching kids about delayed gratification to children

Teaching Important Life Lessons with Marshmallows!

I couldn’t help but think of all the many areas of our lives impacted by our own ability to delay immediate gratification, especially when other options are on the table. And how our studies, work, relationships, health and overall life in general can be affected… Well, Walter Mischel, the Stanford University Professor who conducted the study confirmed that many years later, these children had experienced significantly different results.

The children who were willing and able to delay immediate gratification at a young age (in return for a greater reward later) ended up having:

  •  higher SAT scores in school
  •  much lower levels of substance abuse
  •  a lower likelihood of being overweight and obese
  •  better responses to stress and dealing with failure
  •  better social skills
  •  Much more likelihood as adults to achieve personal success in both their professional and personal life


What Will You Discover When Teaching Your Kids About Delayed Gratification?

Could you resist temptation?

Could you resist temptation?

Following the same basic model of the experiment, I decided to teach a quick lesson about the importance of delayed gratification to my 3 children. I offered a plump looking, delicious tasting marshmallow to each of my 3 kids, then told my children that if they chose to wait 15 minutes before eating the first marshmallow, they would receive an extra marshmallow later.

They all initially decided to wait, and my two girls, the oldest, stayed firm. But after a little while my young son began to waver. I told him it was fully up to him, but he might want to check the timer to see how much longer. As he walked towards it, it rang – saved by the bell!

Later that day I raised the stakes. I announced that each child could purchase some Legos, but their budget would be $20 if they wanted to hit the store that day, or $30 to wait for an online order. The boy chose the store, as the girls’ eyes went wide, knowing they just had to wait for that larger reward. I could almost physically see their delayed gratification “muscle” flexing in that moment.

How Are You Teaching Your Children About Delayed Gratification?

There are many different ways you can teach your own kids about the importance of delaying instant gratification – in return for a more positive reward later… What kind of lessons have you been teaching your kids lately and what methods have you been using at your place? What area of life do you think is most impacted by the skill of waiting?

Leave your comments below, we would love to hear from you and share in your experience! And don’t forget to check out our Spinning Meals App over at the iTunes store. Since it is a recipe manager app, it requires a little time up front to fill it with recipes you love, but when you see it effortlessly “spin” personalized meal plans and shopping lists you’ll know you’re reaping a long-term reward.

Internet Recipe Capture screenshots

Spinning Meals app on iTunes – Click The Picture to see how it works!

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Posted in Family, Food Articles, Fun, Kid Friendly, Parenting, Philosophies
6 comments on “Teaching Self-Discipline and Self-Control with Marshmallows? The Importance of Teaching Kids About Delayed Gratification
  1. Mark Ivan Cole says:

    I’m not sure I (consciously) did much to teach my kids the value of delayed gratification. Simply not being able to deliver on demand was probably the closest I came to that. However, I did use marshmallows to teach another lesson. All marshmallows were delivered by launching them, singly, unannounced, at their unsuspecting intended consumer (my child). Quick reflexes were required to catch them. We never ate more than two or three, at most. My point–though I never said so–was that it doesn’t take much to have fun; even little treats can be their own event. And you don’t have to eat the whole bag. (Hope I didn’t take this too far off topic. Your idea of the simple teaching tool reminded me of a favorite memory of when my girls were small!)

    • Wayne Salvo says:

      There are 10,000 case histories of felons in Multnomah county with the following or similar description in the case file: “stimulus bounded and low impulse control”.

      • Avatar photo Ryan says:

        I believe it. There was an interesting follow-up study on the marshmallow test which told a more nuanced story for kids who are raised in different contexts. Children who were raised in less controlled environments where theft was common (think large shelters with lots of older kids around)…these kids were actually demonstrating their *intelligence* to indulge immediately, since a marshmallow sitting on their plate was likely to vanish entirely rather than multiply itself.

    • Avatar photo Ryan says:

      Love it! Since I started this parenting gig I’ve said that the most important thing our kids need to learn at an early age is what attitude to have, and how to view life. All other required learning is just details and can come with time. With my delayed gratification lessons, and your spontaneous snack-attack method, I think there’s a full lesson plan here to round them out!

  2. Although I do not have children of my own, I am a teacher. I see students every day who do not want to wait for grades, answers, or the development of skills. In a world where mostly everything is easily accessible, it is wonderful to see someone teaching our future about the importance of patience. Thank you!

    • Avatar photo Ryan says:

      Thanks Erin!! It was a really fun exercise. When any event happens in the world, we expect to see it on twitter in 1 minute, and on official news sites within 5. Over time, what does that do to our expectations of our relationships or personal results? Doing what I can!

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