Teaching Impulse Control in a Instant Gratification Society

By Robin Stephens

Is teaching impulse control to our children an exercise in futility given society’s undeterred march toward instant gratification?

As consumers, we don’t only demand faster — we expect it like it is a divine right. We groan in frustration when a website takes a couple of seconds to load. We complain if retailers don’t provide same-day service, or if our movie buffers while streaming. Technology is bettering our lives, yet experts caution that society’s compulsion toward instant gratification may come at a price: it is making us less patient. We are unwilling to wait — and our children are watching.

Learning to wait may be one of the most important lessons you teach your child today to guarantee a successful life in the future.

Numerous longitudinal studies link impulse control during childhood to positive outcomes during teenage years and adulthood. Early childhood delays in gratification correlate to better school performance, higher scores on standardized tests, higher paying jobs, better health, and more successful relationships.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Stanford professor, Walter Mischel, conducted research testing children’s abilities to delay gratification. These tests came to be known as the The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Children between the ages of 4 and 6 were brought into a room with only a table and a chair. They were presented with a lone marshmallow on the table and given a choice between eating one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. Most of the children attempted to wait the 15 minutes so they could have both marshmallows. Many children gave into temptation: only about 30 percent of those children studied were successful at delaying gratification. Those children who were able to delay gratification used distraction and self-talk as a means to cope. Some covered their eyes; others pretended the marshmallow was not real, and some pretended it was a cloud.

Decades later, a follow-up study of the children who participated determined that those who exercised self-control as children also exercised self-control as adults: they exhibited a vast array of advantages over their peers. Those children able to delay gratification exhibited less behavioral problems during adolescence. They possessed higher self-esteem, were more popular with their peers, and able to sustain friendships longer. They also had higher SAT scores than the children who opted to eat the one marshmallow. They were more likely to plan ahead, use reason, and were described by their parents as mature. As adults, they were more likely to be college graduates, possess higher paying jobs, less likely to divorce, and less likely to suffer from poor health. Those children who were unable to delay gratification were more likely as adolescents/adults to have outcomes that included: leaving school early, substance abuse, addictions, unplanned pregnancies, criminal convictions, aggressiveness, conduct disorders, financial problems, divorce, and health issues including obesity. Studies found that each minute a preschooler was able to delay gratification translated to a 2% reduction in BMI (Body Mass Index) 30 years later.

You may be tempted to grab your preschooler and a bag of marshmallows and conduct your own experiment; however, chances are you can already anticipate how your child will react. Not to worry, whether you are in the company of an impatient preschooler or an impetuous teenager, there are things you can do and teach to promote self-regulation and impulse control in your children. (Subsequent studies have determined children who start off with low self-control, but increase skills over time, achieve parallel improvements in their developmental outcomes.) The following suggestions apply to both young children and older children/adolescence.

What Parents Can Do

Create an Environment Where Self-Control is Consistently Rewarded

In a follow-up experiment to the Marshmallow Test, Professor Celeste Kidd of University of Rochester explored the importance of a child’s expectation of reward. If the experience reinforced that adults don’t keep their promises, or that institutions don’t enforce the promised or fair allocations of rewards, would a child wait patiently for a hypothetical prize? Her research found that it took only a couple of disappointments to undermine a child’s desire to delay gratification.

Children will weigh the benefits: when they reason that the person promising to deliver a future prize is consistently dependable and trustworthy they are more likely to exercise self-control.

Encourage Self-talk

The Stanford study documented the effectiveness of self-talk in helping 4-6 years old exercise self-control, but self-talk is extremely effective for older children as well. The child’s inner voice plays an important role in helping him control impulsive behavior.

Play Games That Encourage Self-Control

When a child plays a game and plays by the rules, he is practicing self-control. Additionally, games like “Red Light-Green Light”, “Simon Says”, or “The Freeze Game” go a step further and require a child to inhibit his impulses, thus exercising self-regulation. Memory games also improve impulse control. Enhanced memory appears to lighten the cognitive load of the child’s frontal cortex, allowing it to manage impulsivity in a more successful manner.

Creative Play

Children who are continually engaged in adult-directed activities do not learn to self-regulate. Providing free imaginary playtime for your child is an important activity that allows her to develop her executive function skills. The Stanford experiment saw many of the successful gratitude delayers use creative play and imaginative thought to maintain self-control.

Give Kids a Break

Often times when participants are asked to complete two tasks in a row, (which require self-control) the second task is usually performed worse. One theory posits that our brains are designed to seek a balance between seeking out pleasurable rewards versus those that are perceived as drudgery. Asking too much of kids is likely to set them up for failure. Giving them a break in between tasks is a way to help them recharge, refocus, and succeed.

Encourage Kids to Get Moving

Physical activity has a positive affect on focus by boosting levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. In addition, exercise improves concentration and decreases hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Encourage Kids to Practice Planning

As adults, we realize how important planning can be to maintaining self-control. Thinking before acting will help a child understand the cause-and-effect outcome of his actions. Include children in discussions regarding family plans, schedules, etc. so they are able to understand the concept and the benefits. Helping a child set up a schedule can aid him as he moves toward more independence.

Be a Role Model

Nothing speaks louder than a parent’s actions. Seeing a parent model patience and self-control is crucial if we are to instill positive self-regulatory behavior in our children. So, next time you are tempted to yell at your smartphone or complain about the connection speed of your Internet, remember you have a potential two marshmallow-eater watching.


Robin Stephens of The Growing Room Academy holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a focus on early childhood/ adolescent development, family systems, and socio-cultural perspectives of the family. As a Certified Simplicity Parenting Coach©, Robin provides personal family coaching and facilitates parenting workshops for schools and parent organizations. She also is involved in youth advocacy organizations providing support for LGBTQ youth and their families.