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The Power of Saying No: How Teaching Kids about Instant Gratification Will Affect Their Future Finances

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The Power of Saying No

Some of the best moments of motherhood happen when your kids have those “aha” moments of understanding why you did certain things you did. For many parents, this happens when the kids are grown and having their own children. 

Then you get to hear, “Wow, this is hard work!” And gleefully reply, “I told you so.” What a triumphant feeling.

Lately I have been witnessing my daughter’s teenage “aha” moments about money and possessions. She recently got a part-time job, and while she still spends money a little loosely, she has learned so much this summer about the value of the dollar. 

When she was a little girl, I often would deny her toys, candy, clothes—whatever was in her sights at the moment. It’s not like she was deprived. But I didn’t pander to her every whim, and in fact very few of them. 

Did she like it? Of course not! Was this the easier route for me? No way! She would sometimes whine and often quietly stew, and now she tells me she envied her friends who got whatever they wanted. 

But only a little.

The amazing thing is now she admits that even then, she recognized that she didn’t deserve everything she asked for, or better put, didn’t require those items to validate her. She knew that her friends got things when they shouldn’t. 

Interesting. She was getting an introduction to fighting instant gratification, and now that she is older, she is grateful for the lesson. 

The Prevalence of Instant Gratification

Our society is built around instant gratification. We have TV on demand, food on demand, credit cards to purchase on demand, and every advertisement and social media outlet telling us to buy, buy, buy. 

And beyond purchasing power, we have been inundated with technology that gives us instant feedback and gratification through likes and updates. We don’t have to wait for much anymore. 

So why is it so important to teach kids about the evils of instant gratification? Why should we tell them no

So they can learn impulse control that will carry into their adult lives and literally affect their brain hard-wiring. 

What Happens in Our Brains?

According to Psychology Today, “The term time preference is an economic concept that refers to the importance we place on future outcomes relative to current outcomes.” If you only focus on the “now,” you miss out on what could happen in the future if you made a different choice. 

Let’s put it in kid terms: My daughter wants to buy a car, but she also wants to buy a new pair of shoes and go out with her friends. Her time preference will determine whether she follows through with her “want” now or waits for the bigger, better outcome later. 

Instant gratification will always follow the now. 

And this can have grave consequences financially, not to mention emotionally, socially, and physically. 

A joint study conducted by professors from Princeton, Harvard, and Carnegie Mellon determined what happens in our brains when we crave something now, even while knowing that waiting for the future would bring a bigger reward. 

They gave students in the study a choice between gift cards of smaller values they could have now, and larger gifts they could have in 2-6 weeks. By studying their brain activity, the professors concluded that 2 parts of the brain are at war: the emotional and abstract reasoning centers.

What happens when you cave into immediate gratification? Your emotional center is in high gear, releasing dopamine and overpowering the reasoning part of your brain. This of course can lead to addictive behaviors. 

Of course, I don’t want my daughter to have addictive behaviors of any sort, so I did and do all I can to combat this crazy brain control our society pushes and even celebrates. 

The Super-Power

Just call me Super-No Mom.

When my daughter  was little, she wanted light-up shoes. Seems innocent enough. But Super-No Mom said NO and bought her inexpensive Payless shoes that she could get dirty and ultimately grow out of in a few months. I explained my reasoning, and despite her annoyance, she came to see the value of wearing shoes she didn’t have to worry about. 

Lesson learned. Today my daughter buys her own shoes with her money, and although she does like designer brands (she is 15), she understands their worth as they fit for years. And she does indeed wear them for years, holes and all. 

When she was a little older, my daughter wanted to spend all of her allowance on candy. Super-No Mom said NO and said she could only spend a small portion on candy, but must save the rest for larger items she really wanted, like Friends LEGOS sets. 

Lesson learned. Today, not only does my daughter have healthy eating habits, but she is disciplined to save money towards goals. Currently college, car, and travel. With her part-time job, she is putting away 50% towards her future endeavours. 

You may think these are little instances with no importance. But honestly, learning at a young age how to cope with the disappointment of delayed gratification, while also learning financial savvy, will benefit your children as it has mine. 

Three Steps to Gaining the Power

Let me give you a few tips to help you acquire Super-Power status of your own and help your children develop impulse control and delayed gratification skills. 

  1. Encourage Real Play: This may seem like the opposite of maturity, but play—real play—involves imagination, decision-making, and planning for future outcomes (even if it is only for the afternoon). Get your children away from TV or video games.  Instead play with open-ended materials. They may need help to learn how to pretend, but it is worth every ounce of effort.
  2. Talk about the future: We often ask little kids (and teenagers) what they want to be when they grow up. And yes, we should talk about the big decisions like that. But I am talking about smaller future decisions. Ask your children their plans for the day, the week, the semester. Talk about upcoming projects or goals. Help kids learn to think in future terms about desires and wants. 
  3. Say No: I cannot stress this enough. Do not give in to every whim of your children. Teach them what it feels like to not get what they want. Not now. Maybe not ever. In real adult life, we often must compromise or do without something we want. By teaching the ability to emotionally handle this concept at a young age, your kids will be better able to handle “adulting.” 

My “Aha” Moment

Since my daughter now admits how she felt and understood as a child about instant gratification, I am able to look back and see how the tactics above brought her to maturity now. 

My children had elaborate pretend play lives. She learned how to imagine and dream. 

We constantly talk about the future. We talk about our plans both before and after events to see how things could be improved. 

And of course I say no frequently. But what’s nice is now I get to have my own “aha” moment. 

My daughter has matured into a responsible, future-oriented young adult who doesn’t need me to micromanage her,  especially her financial decisions. 

Another successful mission (almost) complete

Contributor’s opinions are their own. Always do your own due diligence before investing.

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Jamie Mountford

Written by Jamie Mountford

Jamie leads the homeschool mom life, juggling kids, volunteer work, teaching, pets, housework, writing, and her marriage. In her spare time, she likes to debate anything, read intelligent books, garden profusely, music direct and sing, and get out in nature.

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