The ABCs of Money: Putting the Wait back into Want

By Susan Beacham

Our kids are growing up in a world that is very different from the one we experienced. Very different. They are online and their access to the Internet has taken the waiting out of wanting.

Children spent $3 billion online last year, according to JupiterResearch, a market research and analysis company that focuses on the impact of the Internet and other emerging consumer technologies. Online games, iTunes, ring tones, even subscription-based Web fantasy worlds, such as "Club Penguin," for younger kids, are drawing more of our kids' attention - and more of their demand for our dollars.

With all of this instant gratification available, why worry about teaching our children how to wait? Because delayed gratification is a crucial skill for a successful life.

The Marshmallow Study

So says a longitudinal study from Stanford University that began in the 1960s. In what has become known as "the marshmallow study," psychologist Michael Mischel offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait until after the researcher ran an errand, they could have two marshmallows.

About one-third of the children grabbed and ate the single marshmallow right away, while some waited a little longer. Only about one-third were able to wait the 15 or 20 minutes for the researcher to return.

Mischel followed the kids for a number of years and found stunning differences between the groups. When the children graduated from high school, the "resisters" - those who waited for the two marshmallows - were more positive, self-motivated, persistent in the face of difficulties and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.

The "grabbers" - the children who ate the marshmallow immediately - grew into adults who were more troubled, stubborn, indecisive and less self-confident. They never developed the ability to put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals.

Astonishingly, the grabbers scored an average of 210 points lower on SAT tests. The researchers discovered that when it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted. Their inability to delay gratification followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction, less income, poor health and frustrating lives.

In my house, I try to teach my girls about delaying gratification by teaching them they have choices for how they spend money and how to set goals for their money.

"Delayed gratification involves waiting before fulfilling a want [not a need]," says Celia Osenton, a certified parent education advisor. And, because delayed gratification is a skill that is important in so many areas of life, it is a skill that should be reinforced - especially when it comes to money management.

Strategies to teach children the power of waiting:

Osenton suggests the following scenarios and strategies to teach children the power of waiting:

  • When a 3-year-old asks for a cookie: "You can have one cookie now, or you can pick up your toys and have two cookies when you finish."

  • When a 5-year-old wants to watch a favorite movie: "There isn't time to watch all of it now, but if you wait until after supper, we can watch it together and I'll make popcorn."

  • When a 10-year-old wants a new video game: "We can't buy a game right now, but if you save your allowance, I'll split the cost of a new game with you."

  • When a 14-year-old wants a trendy new jacket: "I can understand how much you want the jacket, but it is not a necessary expense at the moment. You'll have to earn extra money to buy it for yourself."

  • When kids of any age (as well as adults) are opening gifts: "Why don't you try to guess what is inside before opening it?"

Lots of wonderful things happen for our children when they learn to delay gratification. Teaching them how to wait for things they want could mean the difference between raising a child who successfully launches someday - and ends up living on his own, rather than back in his old bedroom - and one who does not.

Susan Beacham is the founder and CEO of Money Savvy Generation, which creates innovative products and services to help parents, grandparents and educators teach children money management skills. Email her at

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