590. Gratification

Adults often try to teach children about the glory of delayed gratification. “If you save your money,” we say, “you’ll have it when you really need it. Why get a bunch of stickers or candies now when you could save your money and get something better later?” When we ask children such questions, we want them to especially hear the words “something better,” but what many children hear much more clearly are the words “now” and “later.” And as far as they’re concerned, “now” is a much better word than “later.”
I remember how important the word “now” was in my own youth. The future was some nebulous land that didn’t really exist for me. I knew what things I wanted, and I didn’t want them LATER; I wanted them NOW. Now, later doesn’t seem so far away any more. I now have a lot of what I was told I’d only be able to have later. So in a way, now, practically speaking, is later.
Sometimes we have to accept and respect the way children see “now” and “later” – realize that children tend to live in the present and tend not to want to have to wait all the time. We can start to teach them about delayed gratification, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that the concept may not be easy for children to grasp. Money in the bank is awfully abstract, and not at all as much fun as money you get to trade for some stuff you really want to have right away.
As is true of many things we try to teach children, it’s a good idea to figure out how well we’ve learned this ourselves. Many children are quick to notice evidence of adult hypocrisy. We can tell children that they ought to think carefully before acting – that they ought to make sure they’ve thought about the implications and possible consequences of their decisions, but they’re watching us; we set examples for them. That doesn’t mean we have to be right all the time – just that we ought to be learning from our mistakes as we expect them to learn from theirs.
Instant gratification is sometimes part of adults’ reality; adults sometimes get what they want as soon as they realize that they want it. Maybe they have money saved up, but often they have plastic cards that say, in effect, “I don’t have the money now, but I want to buy the thing now. I’ll pay for it later. Really I will.” It’s kind of similar to buying a coveted toy using next week’s allowance – a practice I’ve heard adults discourage.
It’s nice when we get what we want. It’s true that there are times when we have to wait. When we do, sometimes it’s worth the wait, and sometimes it isn’t. But we don’t always have to wait, and if we have ways to get around waiting, we’ve got to be honest about that. As we teach children how to live, we ought to make sure that what we teach is illustrated by the way we live our own lives.

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