Why Parents Should Teach Kids to Defer Gratification

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why should parents keep their kids from developing an attachment to immediate gratification? What problems arise when a child doesn’t learn to defer gratification?

M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, argues that the first and most valuable tool you can develop to support spiritual growth is discipline. There are four key components to discipline. One of them is the ability to defer gratification. He explains two problems that can occur when a child fails to learn this skill.

Keep reading to learn about the problems that can arise when we don’t defer gratification.

Teach Your Kids to Defer Gratification

To defer gratification means to confront pain when it arises because you know it will allow you to experience greater pleasure in the long run. The goal is to get the challenging part out of the way first, then be able to enjoy yourself without anxiety. 

How you are parented is what determines whether or not you develop the discipline for deferred gratification. There are two subtle problems that can occur when a child does not learn how to defer gratification.

Problem #1: Underdeveloped Problem-Solving Skills 

When you don’t develop the discipline to defer gratification, you don’t learn how to work through feelings of frustration or discomfort, and consequently, your ability to problem-solve will be underdeveloped. Unless you have a mental disability or difficulty, you are capable of solving your problems as long as you’re willing to take the time to do so. 

For example, say you get a flat tire, and because you don’t know how to change a tire, you just take the bus until you can afford to pay someone to do it. Your choice to take the bus reflects an attachment to immediate gratification (immediate access to transportation), whereas, with the willingness to defer gratification (taking the time to find out how to change your own tire), you would have saved money and developed greater confidence in your ability to problem-solve. 

Problem #2: Tendency Towards Avoidance

When we have issues solving our problems, it is usually partially because we are hoping they’ll go away on their own. This is another example of an attachment to immediate gratification. Solving problems requires discomfort upfront, and the willingness to suffer through that discomfort for long-term happiness.

For example, undisciplined parents who avoid their own problems and growth will often punish their children for behaviors they themselves demonstrate, resulting in kids who struggle with problem-solving and impulse control (a crucial factor in deferred gratification). Parents who demonstrate healthy discipline will inspire their children to use the same healthy habits.

Why Parents Should Teach Kids to Defer Gratification

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Road Less Traveled summary :

  • The four key elements in the path to enlightenment
  • The importance of spiritual competence in relation to mental health
  • How you can face challenges and grow through hardship

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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