What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase instant gratification?
Perhaps technological advancements like microwaves, DVRs, and Instant Pots?
Or changes in commerce, like fast food restaurants, zero-cash-down, and zero-percent interest?
Most of us would agree and have probably taught our kids that good things come to those who wait, faster doesn’t usually mean better, and practically anything worth having requires time and effort.
But teaching our kids to practice these truths is a pretty tall order in today’s world of instant gratification.
As Christian parents, it’s wise for us to start with these questions: Is delayed gratification merely a cultural concept long forsaken (though fondly remembered)? Or does the Bible have something to say about it?
Spiritual Aspects of Instant vs. Delayed Gratification
As I’ve pondered this subject lately and had some great discussion with friends on social media, I’ve been astounded by the spiritual undercurrents of a subject I always considered strictly practical. But when it comes right down to it, instant gratification is pretty much the complete antithesis of everything God wants for His people.
Instant gratification is self-centered. It’s a mindset that’s completely focused on me, not sparing thought or concern for the needs and desires of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Instant gratification is pleasure-driven. Its aim is fulfilling the desires of the flesh, ignoring the spirit. (Romans 8)
Instant gratification is pride-powered. It feeds on a desire to maintain control over my life circumstances, demanding what I want, when I want it. (Proverbs 16:5,9)
While you won’t find the term “delayed gratification” in the Bible, God’s Word is full of implications and examples of it, including:
- Saving faith. While salvation brings immediate freedom from the power of sin, the promise of our eternal heavenly home has yet to be fulfilled. (Hebrews 11:1, 13-16)
- Heart desires. The condition of our hearts is revealed by our willingness (or lack of willingness) to wait for God’s timing and provision in the fulfillment of our desires. Esau’s enjoyment of the world’s first “instant pot” of stew is an example of immediate gratification that illustrated his skewed priorities, coming at a very high price (Genesis 25:29-34). On the other hand, the Shulamite woman expressed longing for her husband, but was willing to delay the gratification of her desire until the right time (Song of Solomon 8:1-4).
- Godly character. Qualities like patience, diligence, and a willingness to work hard all point to the importance of delaying gratification. (James 1:2-4)
- Daily trust. The Bible is full of admonitions to “wait on the Lord.” This doesn’t mean we sit around with twiddling thumbs, but instead maintain an attitude of patient expectancy, knowing that God will work but being willing to wait for His timing because we trust that He knows best. (Isaiah 40:31)
- God’s order. You’re probably familiar with the biblical principle that we reap what we sow. But what comes in between the sowing and reaping? Waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. Farming requires both hard work and a willingness to wait for the reward, because that is how God designed it to be. (Galatians 6:7-9)
6 Strategies for Teaching Kids Delayed Gratification
Can you think of a significant part of your life that doesn’t require the hard work, patience, and perseverance associated with delayed gratification?
I can’t. From education to employment, relationships to ministry, personal health to finances, delayed gratification is a critical part of a mature, joyful life on this planet.
So how can we help our kids develop this elusive quality that often manages to confound the best of us? Here are a few ideas to get started (and I genuinely hope you’ll leave a comment and share your own suggestions at the end of the article).
1. Discuss the spiritual side.
The biblical truths above, are truths that our kids need to hear, both during designated family Bible times as well as in the context of life. Use the Bible as a springboard for these conversations, and guide your children in praying for God’s help.
2. Make them wait.
A friend shared with me that she doesn’t let her kids buy something they want right away, even if they have the money for it. Instead, she designates a waiting period before revisiting the purchase. This is wisdom!
Teaching kids to wait can start very early by having scheduled times for snacks and meals, and teaching children to curb their appetite until the designated times. Training them to wait patiently for their turn and to refrain from interrupting are also simple ways to help kids learn to wait.
3. Tackle big projects.
Assigning major tasks (like planting and tending a garden, reading a thick book, or building a treehouse, for example) go a long way toward helping kids learn to be diligent.
Choose any project that is within your child’s capabilities but will require a larger-than-usual investment of time and effort, with a longer-than-usual wait for the finished product. Tailor these to your child’s strengths and interests at first, then stretch their comfort zone little by little as they mature.
4. Teach them to look to the reward.
A friend recently pointed out the value of learning to “count your chickens before they hatch.” The reward of our labor may be different from what we envision, but when we make an investment, there will be a return because of the God-ordained sowing and reaping principle.
As our kids undertake big projects or have to exercise waiting in other areas of life, it’s good to remind them of the reward beckoning on the horizon.
5. Delay your own gratification.
Our kids are watching us, and they learn far more from our example than from our words. Many times, adults don’t express unfulfilled desires, but perhaps it would be a good idea to share them with our children every now and then.
Statements like “I really would like a bowl of ice cream, but I don’t think that would be best for me right now” or “I want this dress, but I’m going to wait until I have some birthday money next month” can help our kids recognize that practicing delayed gratification is an important part of being a responsible adult.
6. Resist the trap of indulgence.
This isn’t a technique as much as it’s a parenting mindset. It’s fun to indulge our kids, to observe their delight over a wish we’ve granted. But parents who are shepherding their kids toward Christlikeness recognize the damage overindulgence inflicts on their souls, because it teaches them to be self-centered and to expect immediate fulfillment of their desires.