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Delayed Gratification - the importance for parents of pre-school children

As parents of small children can testify - babies are not born with patience. One of the most difficult lessons for small children to learn is to wait. If a toddler has set her or his mind on something, it typically has to happen immediately - and if not, they will let their caretakers know in no uncertain terms that they are unhappy with the state of affairs. Once they decide they want something, they normally are not good at finishing something else first as a precondition or even a stepping stone to something else.

The term that researchers use to describe this ability to wait is “delayed gratification”. No one is born with the inherent capacity to delay gratification. Yet it is one of the most useful and valuable skills to learn in life and recent research*, done on over 40000 UK households has actually shown that it plays an extremely important role in what the authors call “Life satisfaction”. The article goes a bit further in that it looks at the role of delayed gratification in the consumption of fruit and vegetables as well as regular exercise.

Eating your vegetables as a lifestyle choice is good for you in more ways than you think

We know from previous research that fruit and vegetable consumption is good for normal and healthy childhood development. However, what this particular research shows is that individuals who choose to eat fruit and vegetables as well as exercise regularly have higher levels of life satisfaction in the long run. In other words, they tend to live more fulfilled lives. In the words of the authors: “In this paper, we consider the impact of lifestyle (eating fruit and vegetables, regular exercise) on life satisfaction, a longer term, more deliberative measure of well-being” (2021:2).

To briefly summarise - the main takeaways from the article are as follows:

  • The authors used the consumption of fruit and vegetables as well as exercise as lifestyle indicators to determine if this contributed to life satisfaction;

  • There is a direct correlation between the ability to delay gratification, one’s perception of having a locus of control and lifestyle changes;

  • Those people who have the ability to implement lifestyle changes such as consuming fruit and vegetables plus regular exercise, tend to have a much higher life satisfaction index than those who do not.

Implications for parents

So how is all of this relevant for parents of pre-school children? As parents we want our children to grow up to be happy and satisfied individuals. From birth through school and university, we do our best to assist them so that they can live fulfilled lives. What this research shows is that the ability to delay gratification, to live from an internal sense (locus) of control plays a crucial role in enabling individuals to make lifestyle choices and changes that will lead to a high degree of life satisfaction. We should capitalise on this early on in childrens’ education journey.

The fact that this particular research also links these abilities to healthy food choices and exercise is equally important. As parents of pre-school children, we have a unique opportunity to teach our children to delay gratification from an early age. If we are able to do this by example through healthy food and life choices - even better. After all, children like to mimic adults and the more they see and experience delayed gratification and healthy choices in action the better. Doing small things like teaching children not to eat all their sweets at once but saving some for another day, or planting seeds, watering them and caring for them until they bear fruit, or saving for something special by using a piggy bank may seem trivial. However, these kinds of activities will form the foundation of their own ability later in life to delay gratification which in turn will enable them to make healthy life choices that contribute to their overall life satisfaction.

*Gschwandtner, A., Jewell, S. & Kambhampati, U.S. Lifestyle and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Delayed Gratification. J Happiness Stud (2021).


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