The waiting game

Delaying gratification isn’t easy, but it’s an essential milestone for kids on the road to becoming money smart.

Like many parents, I’m often conflicted about this time of year. While I love the festivities, decadent foods and time spent with family and friends, it can all add up to an embarrassing level of excess — even before you add in the gift factor. What do kids make of it all? Will they grow up with a sense of entitlement?

But this year, I’m a lot more relaxed about it. And here’s why: my nine-year-old son, Adam, has finally learned the value of delayed gratification.

Trust me when I say this does not come naturally to him. While I never put him through the “official” marshmallow experiment — where kids are tested to see if they can delay the gratification of eating one marshmallow now, and in return get two marshmallows to enjoy later — I didn’t have to. I know darn well that first marshmallow would be down his gullet before I even left the room. Why does this matter? According to the study, which followed up with the kids once they were grown, those who were able to delay gratification as kids became more successful as adults than those who couldn’t resist the temptation of eating the marshmallow right away.

Based on recent experience, however, I’d say delaying gratification is a skill that can be learned — especially when given the right motivation. As I wrote back in September, when Adam’s dad and I decided last year that we would definitely not be buying him a New 3DS XL (he already had an older model of the handheld video game), Adam was determined to find a way to buy his own. He had a few options at his disposal: save up his allowance (he gets $5 a week), save up gift cards or money he received for the holidays or his birthday or trade in some of his existing games and system. He used a combination of all three to come up with the total and, after the better part of a year, he finally achieved his goal.

I have never seen Adam more excited than when we finally went to the store to buy that device. And I have never seen him show more care or pride of ownership than he does with that shiny red game.

So this year, I’m not too worried about Adam getting spoiled over the holidays. I know that he’s seen the value in waiting and saving up to get something he really wants, and I have no doubt that any gift cards or money he might receive this holiday will be spent thoughtfully, rather than impulsively.

Keep the conversation going

Are your kids naturally good at delaying gratification, or is it something they need to work at (like Adam)? We’d love to hear your stories about times they went for the instant boost, or waited to get a more satisfying reward. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada).

About the Author

Tamar Satov

Managing Editor, CPA magazine
Tamar is a journalist specializing in business, parenting and personal finance. She blogs regularly in this space with advice and anecdotes on her efforts to raise a money-smart kid.