The Case for Delayed Gratification

I often hear friends say that they want to give their children what they themselves never had. It shouldn’t surprise you that I feel the opposite: If I didn’t have it, my kids don’t need it.

Sure, we freaked out about the first kid, even before he was born. I thought I really needed a diaper changing table and that it had to match the super fancy crib we saw at the Exchange. Super fancy meaning a crib that cost over a hundred bucks!

Turns out we didn’t need a changing table nor a high end crib. We were just a young couple on a young kid’s military salary, after all.

We did get caught up in the single-parent, daddy’s-deployed guilt for a bit but I’m sure there are a handful of posts in the archives covering all of that.

I’m talking about the need for stuff. I’m talking about instant gratification. And when you put those things together, I’m talking about entitlement for said stuff.

One of my cousins once told me that whenever she took her kid to Target, he was only allowed to buy one toy.


For a birthday, fine. Reward for a good report card, okay. But simply just because there would be a temper tantrum without it? I don’t buy it.

We have convinced ourselves that we deserve it, we earned it, we need to spoil ourselves. Do we really?

I will treat myself to a mani-pedi but do I deserve it? Am I entitled to this? No, I worked hard to pay for this among other things but I certainly don’t have to have it.

When we pass this line of thinking on to our kids, we are buying into this materialistic fantasy in which we have been immersed. The amount of money spent on advertising is mind-boggling. McDonalds says we “deserve a break today” and instead of being grateful, instead of praying/meditating, instead of just being content, we need to prove it to ourselves and to others by buying a Big Mac. Beauty product companies prey on us in the same way. We used to be something– whether it is younger, thinner, happier– and don’t we deserve to be that again?

I’m not proud that I chose to celebrate a new job offer with a designer purse or am  taking a coffee break at the local coffee chain to catch up on work. Can you say hypocrite?

I do it too but I’ll be damned if I take it too far and choose to teach my children this. I grew up in the eighties with two working class parents. My little brother and I spent most of our time outside. We were able to play video games but it didn’t hold a candle to going to the park, meeting kids in the neighborhood, and goofing around until the street lights came on. We didn’t have a lot of toys and we didn’t go out to eat often. Perhaps growing up without extras allowed me to grateful for whatever came my way.

For others though, it’s probably seen as deprivation, as something they did not have so they will provide that for their children… but at what cost?

Kids are starting to believe that things that used to be luxuries to their parents are now the new necessities. No, we don’t have to eat out everyday. No, you don’t need a drink at the coffee place like Mommy. And no, you absolutely-positively-over-my-dead-body do not need a cell phone, let alone the newest iPhone!

I sometimes work at a nearby high school where facial piercings and tattoos have become increasingly popular. I do not have a problem with facial piercings and tattoos but I do have an issue with the money used towards vanity when the kids themselves clearly did not work to buy these alterations. I asked a few of these kids right before class ended how they got the money to get pierced or tatted. One said he got birthday money and used that money toward his three hundred dollar tattoo. The rest of the kids said their parents paid for it.

There was nothing scientific about this  informal survey and I’m thankful for these relationships with students to have such frank discussions. So frank that I was able to ask half-jokingly, “Don’t you think you should have saved this money for tuition or a textbook?”

R said one of his friends freaked out when his daughter in college got a tattoo. R and I had very different viewpoints. He said he didn’t know what the big deal was, especially since he and I both have permanent artistic renditions on our bodies. My whole thing was that everything she had should have been going toward college. If she’s willing to throw away several hundred dollars on a tattoo, something that did not have to do with her primary goal of graduating from college, what else is she willing to sacrifice? A sacrifice that is costing her parents tens of thousands of dollars. Several hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of a college degree but I’m sure her father felt that it was a huge sign of disrespect when  he sacrificed so much to send her to college. His daughter could not delay her gratification until she earned her own money to buy it.

I don’t care if my kids want to get their nose pierced or a tribal tattoo that has nothing to do with their heritage. Really, I don’t. (However, if they do the latter, I will tease them until the end of time.) I do care, however, if they use money that was earmarked for something else, college being the primary goal.

This struggle can happen without warning, without intention. And it can happen over and over again.

During a particularly hectic week due to work and kids’ afterschool activities, I didn’t realize that we were going out to eat a lot. From the back of the car, I heard a voice say, “Can we just eat at Grandma’s house instead of burgers and fries?”

Ouch. (We did go to grandma’s that evening for dinner.)

I broke down a few years ago and bought the boy a phone when he was in fifth grade. He had to walk over a mile to get home with his sisters after school. While they had many friends who lived along the way and I gave them permission to stay at any of their friends’ houses (ones that I have met and know their parents) if they ever felt unsafe, it still gave me piece of mind, even a false one, that he had a cell phone. I quickly squashed his dreams of ever having a smart phone, citing that neither Daddy nor I had a cell phone until we were in our late twenties and even then, we had only one between the two of us.

Even if I have taught my children the art of delayed gratification, it is not my intention for them to automatically dismiss something or some goal simply because of cost.

At an anime convention earlier this year, my middle daughter saw a key chain that featured her favorite anime character. She knew I wasn’t going to buy it for her and decided that she would save her money until she could earn it.

Now I could have dropped the six dollars to buy this key chain for her but let me tell you, the joy of having that keychain would not have come close to the experience we had at the last anime convention.

After months of saving, she had enough to buy that key chain and more. She pulled out her purse to pay for her souvenirs with such pride and with such conviction that it was worth much more than six dollars six months ago could ever bring.

A friend of mine recently had twin boys and while walking around the baby section of the toy store, I felt so overwhelmed. My own “baby” is seven years old but many of these products didn’t even exist then! Did you know there are baby swings that can move in more than the usual back-and-forth? You can simulate a swing, a car ride, and a few other movements I can’t remember. How easy it was to fall into that line of thinking. I didn’t have that for my baby, maybe I should get two for her twins.

In the end, I walked out empty-handed. I seem to be doing that a lot these days.

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