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Sometimes it's better to wait! Delay of gratification in 3- and 4-year-old children

Delay of gratification is the ability to forgo a small, immediate reward for a larger, future reward. For example, as adults, we might pass up the opportunity to go out to dinner because we are saving money for an overseas holiday.

As parents, we spend considerable time teaching our young children to delay gratification—we teach them to wait, take turns, etc. Interestingly, researchers have shown that preschoolers’ ability to exhibit delay-of-gratification predicts better academic performance and the number of friends they have later in life.

Given the importance of this skill for subsequent development, we are interested in the conditions that might help children develop the ability to delay gratification. Many researchers have shown that there is a marked age-related shift in children’s ability to exhibit delay-of-gratification between 3 and 4 years of age; essentially, 4-year-olds exhibit delay of gratification on a range of laboratory tasks, but 3-year-olds do not.

In our study, we wanted to see if it was possible to enhance the performance of 3-year-olds. To do this, we developed a new delay-of-gratification task that helped very young children understand the consequences of choosing the immediate, small reward over the delayed, but larger, one. Over a series of trials, children had the opportunity to watch as the larger reward was removed when they opted for the immediate, smaller one. Under these conditions, children as young as 3-years old, who typically fail on this task, reliably waited, delaying immediate gratification in order to receive the larger reward.

In future studies, we will use this task as a potential intervention for older children who exhibit difficulties with delay of gratification.

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