Delayed gratification and your child

Theory of mind

Have you ever heard that toddlers are egocentric? It is true, and likely part of the survival instinct. Babies don’t understand that other people are separate from themselves. Toddlers start to learn that people can want and feel differently than they do. By age four, a child also understands that people can think differently. This developing ability is called theory of mind. This developing skill may partially explain why delayed gratification is difficult for young children. Their abstract thinking is not yet sufficiently developed.

Different natural abilities

By age four, most children will be able to understand delayed gratification. We don’t yet know why, but some kids are naturally better at it than others. This is where the strategies from yesterday come in. Research shows that all kids (and adults) benefit from practicing delayed gratification. You can model and teach the strategies to your child. As your child grows up they may remember what worked for them, and try it themselves. You are building life-long skills! So where should you begin?

Begin where you are

Where to begin depends on how accurate you want to be. If you really want to recreate the marshmallow experiment, you can find the instructions online. (Wait a maximum of 15 minutes.) However, you likely have enough experience with your child to guess how long they would last. Either way, this is just for you to know where your child is starting.

Broken promises

There is one final thing to consider, and it’s a little scary. Celeste Kidd and her colleagues replicated the marshmallow experiment. But they wanted to know what would happen if they broke a promise. In this experiment the children were asked to make a piece of artwork. They could either start with the broken crayons that were there, or wait and get a fresh new box of crayons. The researchers came back to half of the kids with the new box of crayons. They came back to the other half saying there was a mistake, there were no new crayons available. Then they did the typical marshmallow experiment.

As you may have guessed, the kids who had experienced a broken promise did not wait long to eat the marshmallow. On average they waited just 3 minutes. This is a ¼ of the time the other group waited. They lasted (on average) 12 minutes! This does not tell us that parents are to blame for kids’ abilities with delayed gratification. But it does tell us that the child’s environment can make a big difference in their behaviour.


1.     Age is a big factor in delayed gratification

2.     Kids, even siblings, differ greatly in delayed gratification

3.     Practice matters more that natural ability

4.     Promises matter a lot

Have fun thinking about (or testing) your child’s natural abilities with delayed gratification!