Immediate Gratification Part 1: Perhaps Our Biggest Parenting Mistake


This is part one of a four part discussion of delayed gratification and how not actively teaching this to our children may be our society’s biggest parenting mistake. First, let’s start with what we know about immediate gratification. We know that we as humans both as children and as adults prefer immediate gratification. Temptations are all around us and our susceptibility to pursuing immediate gratification combined with our ability to persevere for delayed gratification in large part defines our lives. Empirically, there is a lot of evidence for the importance of delaying gratification. Toddlers’ ability to delay gratification predicts their ability as preschoolers to delay gratification. In turn, this delay of gratification in preschoolers is predictive of academic achievement in adolescence and professional achievement in adulthood.  Additionally, the ability to delay gratification has been linked to mental adjustment across the lifetime. An inability to delay gratification has been associated with mental illness, behavioral problems and health issues in childhood and adulthood. Thus, the importance of the ability to delay gratification is well-established. Additionally, that this characteristic is present in early childhood and shows stability and continuity across the lifetime makes it important for parents to understand and develop in their children.

I believe that this is one of the biggest mistakes that many of American parents make. I have observed that American parents often try to eliminate the frustration that a child feels. With regard to gratification, delaying it is inherently frustrating. We all have a drive toward our immediate gratification, the immediate reward is far more gratifying than the cognitive representation of the possibility of a delayed one. A delayed one in addition to being temporally distant is often not assured either. Thus, developing the ability to pursue delayed gratification instead of immediate is antithetical to innate and highly rewarding drives. The blocking of drives that are innate and highly satisfying is frustrating to the individual.  No parent wants to see their child frustrated. Our tendency as parents is to want to protect our child from negative emotions, to protect them from having to feel frustrated, to satisfy all their needs and wants. Unfortunately, this beneficent desire can be a hindrance to their development of frustration tolerance and their ability to not yield in the face of immediate gratification. Thus, as parents we may in fact be doing a huge disservice to our children. In part two of this discussion, I am going to discuss methods that the scientific literature has identified for delaying gratification. In part three of this discussion, I am going to discuss how this knowledge can be used by parents to their advantage when raising their children.

Additional information