Foster mom and foster child

Deferred Gratification and Contentment: Implications for Parents  

I remember her clearly. I knew I loved her from the first day I saw her. This was definitely love at first sight. She was as beautiful as can be. Every day I walked past her, terrified that she was out of my league, and afraid to stop to show my affection. Then one day, I finally garnered enough courage to go up to her. She was even more beautiful up close than from afar. My heart was pounding. the details of her beauty were even more apparent up close. “You like her?”, I heard someone say, and I barely managed to nod affirmatively. “Well, she is only $5,000, and she can be yours.”

The Volkswagen Beetle was all I had been thinking about. As a teenager, I was in love with this car. I knew I had to have this car immediately. So, I determined in my heart that one day I would be the proud owner of a convertible Beetle.

Pleasure Principle versus Deferred Gratification

Today, getting what we want immediately is the norm. From instant meals to groceries, or even cars, everything can be delivered to our doorstep almost in real-time, with merely the hitting of “enter” on a computer or a cell phone. Everyone seems to be operating on the principle of “I want it and I want it now”. Researchers call this the “pleasure principle”, a term in Freudian psychology used to describe the “instinctive seeking of pleasure”.

However, in contrast to the pleasure principle, adults and children alike, would benefit from internalizing the importance of delayed or deferred gratification. Some call it the “ability to postpone immediate consumption or pleasure in order to work, train, invest, or gain in some other way, a greater benefit in the future.” Researchers investigated this in the famous “marshmallow test,” which was led by Stanford University professor Walter Mischel, in 1972. Children were part of a social experiment designed to measure how well children could delay immediate gratification to receive greater rewards in the future, which predicts success later in life.

Re-Exploring Delayed Gratification 

We all struggle with handling the weight of making choices. Although adults tend to quickly verbally chastise children for making decisions that may bring them pleasure today but sacrifice future benefits, the truth is, adults make the same mistake. Should I buy the new TV or save the funds for later? 

For many years, it was assumed that the ability to defer gratification was innate to the person. That people were born with that ability and passed down through hereditary functions. That somehow this ability was biological, and some simply had it and others did not. 

However, more recently, a team of researchers re-examined the tenets of the Stanford marshmallow experiment and published their findings in the journal Psychological Science. Instead of children being asked to defer gratification for themselves, they were placed in a room and presented with a cookie on a platter. They were informed that they could either eat the cookie now or wait until the investigators returned and received two cookies. 

In a variation from the original experiment, children were told that they would get a second cookie only if they and another child they had just met were able to resist eating the first one. Results showed that children who were cooperating were able to delay gratification longer than those who were not cooperating. The study suggests that deferring gratification and working toward a common goal was more effective than going it alone.

Implications for Parents and Children

The findings of the more recent study have significant implications. Not only does it show that the ability to defer gratification is not “genetics” or “biological”, but it also shows that having the right support and cooperative environment, does strengthen the ability to defer gratification.

So, parents who are trying to teach children to make correct decisions including how to save now to spend later; or study hard now, to enjoy life later, will be much more effective if they themselves model this behavior. Additionally, children will do much better, if the parent joins in the cooperation towards deferring the gratification.

For example, imagine a child who wants ice cream now but that means spending his or her allowance instead of saving for the tablet they wanted. Instead of the parent simply pointing out the importance of saving, how about the parent suggesting, if you save x amount, I will match it with x. Another alternative would be, if you save, I will save with you. I wanted to buy a TV, but I will save and wait until you have the funds to buy the tablet. So, we go out and buy the tablet and TV together. 

Contentment and Deferred Gratification

Someone once wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

You may recognize this quote from the writings of a Biblical writer. Paul was on to something, when he highlights the importance of “learning the secret of being content in any and every situation”.

What does it mean to “be content”? 

On a practical level, contentment is an extension of deferred gratification. Being content with what I have now, is certainly one way to delay gratification. 

As most people practice social isolation and “stay-at-home”, it can become quite easy to focus on the things we do not have. It may be tempting to begin to take stock of the things we “miss”. Who would have thought that we missed going to work, or meeting the friend we used to call once a year? How about, “missing” going to that restaurant we could not afford in the first place? Or going to the mall to buy the clothing that we wore once to an event where we knew no one? 

I am not suggesting that everything we are missing is frivolous, but I am suggesting that while we hunker down, let us take time to be content. Let us be content of being in a home, of having a home to be in. Let us be content of spending time with family, of having a family. The family we barely saw before because of the daily schedule. Let us take time to read the book, the book we bought five years ago, only to put it on the bookshelf. Let us connect or reconnect with each other. Learn to be content. Teach contentment.


You may be wondering if I ever purchased the Beetle? Fast forward many years, and much has happened since my infatuation with this car. Every time I see a Volkswagen Beetle, I remember how much I loved this vehicle. But it also reminds me that there are things in life that are much more important: School, wedding, more school. Raising a child, school again, house, school. You see a pattern? No, I have not purchased my Beetle, but someday, I will. 


nice car

Image from Hemmings Motor

Thank you for partnering with Knotts Family Agency in caring for children in need of a safe and nurturing environment. Every single child in foster care or adoptions, has experienced trauma. The mere experience of being separated from their birth relatives is traumatic. Do not be surprised when it seems that the child has unexplained behaviors. Do not be surprised if a child takes food to his/her room and hoards it as if they were not sure if they would have food the next day. Do not be surprised when the child takes the allowance you provide and immediately spends it on something you consider frivolous. 

Let us be patient with each other. Model the behaviors we expect to see. Model deferred gratification and pretty soon, you will see the children begin to reflect what they see. If you have any concerns, please feel free to contact the agency social worker or anyone at the office.

Thank you for serving as parents to children needing your care.


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