8 Ways Instant Gratification Robs Our Children of Their Happiness by Fern Weis

Updated: Jan 15, 2019

This video is a good illustration of temptation and the hope in future rewards. This experiment is based on many previous and similar scientific tests. Special thanks to Watermark Community Church for sharing their video.

We live in a world of instant gratification. Food/the drive-through, communication/texting, money/ATM, entertainment/Netflix… instant everything and quick fixes are the way of the world. These things may satisfy us in the moment, but they leave us wanting more and feeling unfulfilled.

Our children live in this world. If they’re under the age of 20, they’ve never known a world without ‘on-demand.’ They want it, and they want it now (whatever ‘it’ happens to be). Many have the expectation they will have what they want without any effort or responsibility on their part. I exist, therefore I have. It robs them of their ability to become fulfilled, competent adults.

Have you heard about the 'marshmallow' experiment (Stanford University, early 1970s)? A group of children ages 4-6 are gathered in a room and each given a marshmallow. The tester says he has to leave the room. He also leaves the children with this incentive: if they can be patient and wait 15 minutes to eat it, they will receive a second marshmallow. This is the concept of delayed gratification.

What are the results of the test? A total of six hundred children took part in the experiment. A minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third delayed gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

These children were followed for several decades. For those who delayed gratification, their parents described them ten years later as adolescents who were significantly more competent than those who didn't delay. A second follow-up study in 1990 showed that delayed gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.

Later follow-ups indicated generally better life outcomes (as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other life measures). A 2011 brain imaging study of the original participants showed a more active pre-frontal cortex in high delayers. In short, those children with the ability to delay had improved life outcomes.

What happens when instant gratification is the norm?

How does it affect children's ability to learn and mature?

* Taking things for granted. If children are given what they want, as soon as they want it, it loses value.

* Inability to problem-solve. When they’ve never had to work for something, they don’t know how to plan, strategize and regroup.

* No patience and no vision for the future. Delaying is painful. They’re not able to see past the moment and their own immediate want. (It is rarely a need, and usually a want.)

* Low to no resilience in the face of challenges. When children can’t problem solve, they feel stuck, needy and powerless over their own lives.

* Low frustration tolerance. This means you cannot tolerate frustration around even the smallest things and often behave badly. Do the terms ‘short fuse’ and ‘temper tantrum’ ring any bells?

* Increased disappointment and sadness. It may seem like a stretch, but instant gratification is a step along the path to depression and anxiety.

* Feeling disconnected. The teen years are all about belonging and acceptance. They are already feeling alone when they’re depressed, and who wants to be around people who are depressed? Lack of connection is when everything starts to go wrong.

* Increase in risky behaviors and self-medicating. Kids and teens don’t have the experience and mature pre-frontal cortex to know how to cope with disappointment and anxiety. They make poor, sometimes dangerous, choices to cope with sadness and lack of connection.

From a cell phone to disaster? It doesn’t always play out this way, but it can. Giving without limits and receiving without appreciation are adding to our children’s unhappiness. The rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders in adolescents and young adults are frightening and rising.

Odds are you will see one or more of the eight outcomes in your child. Be mindful of when you contribute to instant gratification and why you do. It can range from 'because I can give/do this for my child' to 'I hate to see her disappointed.' Whatever the reason, it can have long-term consequences. You have the power to change the long-term picture to one where your children thrive.

Fern Weis is a parent coach, specializing in supporting parents of teens and young adults

Fern Weis is a parent coach, specializing in supporting parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations (including underachieving, disrespectful behavior, addiction recovery and more). With parent-centered coaching, Fern helps parents release guilt, end enabling, and confidently prepare their children to thrive through life’s challenges. Learn more about coaching and workshops at www.fernweis.com. And while you’re there, download a free report, “Five Powerful Steps to Get Your Teen to Talk.”