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Delayed Gratification

One day while subbing for kindergarten at an Elementary school, the principal came in with an entire dolly of cookies. The kids hadn’t come in yet, and I was asked to help with a little experiment in delayed gratification. Each student, including me, got a cookie. We watched this fabulous video with Cookie Monster and Tom Hiddleston explaining what delayed gratification is, and then we made the deal. You can have your cookie any time you want; however, if you could wait, you would get another surprise. When would that be? What’s the prize? Even Ms. Nielsen didn’t have the answers.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of... temptation. I would go to students and have them look at the cookies, smell the cookies, think about how delicious this chocolate chip cookie was just to make things a little more interesting. I would even make a big deal of smelling mine and wanting to eat it so badly, while the students would yell, ‘No, Ms. Nielsen! Don’t do it! Then you won’t get your surprise!’ The students ended up having to wait until almost the very end of the day. Only about 6 out of 24 in my class caved in. One girl tried to insist she ate hers by accident. Another ate hers quickly because she said she could have cookies at home whenever she wanted. So what was this fabulous prize for resisting temptation? Another cookie, a mini candy bar, and a ticket into the school drawing. All of the kids who ate their cookies were broken-hearted and tears ensued.

Despite the fact that this was done at an elementary school, it made me want to instantly do it with middle and high school age kids. One, it was a lot of fun. Two, this little experiment could open the doors to so many good conversations! After conducting the experiment, talk about how we practice delayed gratification all the time! Deciding not to play video games all night to study for a test to get a better score, companies holding out on hiring the first person they see to find the person that is the best match. We live in a society that is obsessed with instant gratification. Instant download, 2-day shipping, instant results. I have known people who have quit a job within a week because it’s tough and they didn’t have friends at work yet. If students could learn to value delayed gratification and use it, it could benefit their entire well-being.

Follow-up studies were done on the now adults of The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment of the 70s and 80s. When these kids were 4 or 5 years old, they were left in a room for 15 minutes and given a choice: eat the marshmallow now, or wait for them to come back and get two marshmallows. Follow-up studies showed that the group that was able to resist ended up having higher SAT scores, better social skills, and healthier lifestyles. Those who practice delayed gratification are less impulsive and have more persistence.

As soon as I have the chance, I will be conducting this experiment on my own students to try to open their eyes to the benefits of foregoing the easy and quick answer for something more worthwhile. Would you do this experiment on your students? Have you already tried?

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