Delayed gratification and how this is an absent father issue

The number one indicator of being successful in life is delayed gratification. It becomes interesting when we add that to the fact that we live in a culture where everything is at our fingertips; people seem to have less and less impulse control, and; marketing is getting better and better at selling products and services that play on our impulse control or lack of.

Amy Doyle

Amy Doyle

Holistic Counsellor

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father carrying child to show delayed gratification

If you’ve ever wondered why some people (or yourself) lack the ability to work at a goal over a long period of time and keep at it (without getting sidetracked or going for the get rich-quick-scheme) and others don’t, than the relationship with your father can give you some pretty big clues. 

It turns out we learn the skill of delayed gratification from our fathers.

What is delayed gratification?

Delayed gratification is the act of delaying immediate pleasure or satisfaction in the pursuit of a greater reward or outcome in the future. It involves resisting the temptation of an immediate reward or pleasure in favor of a long-term goal that requires persistence, discipline, and patience.

For example, instead of spending money on a luxurious vacation, someone practicing delayed gratification might save the money to invest in their education or start a business. They are willing to forgo the immediate pleasure of a vacation in exchange for the long-term benefit of a more financially secure future.

Delayed gratification is often associated with a range of positive outcomes, including: 

  • greater success in academics, career, and personal relationships
  • helping with impulse control, emotional regulation, and building resilience. 

Conversely, individuals who struggle with delayed gratification may be more prone to impulsivity, addiction, and other forms of self-destructive behavior.

Delayed gratification and conscientiousness

Delayed gratification is related to the trait of conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is the best predictor of success outside of general cognitive ability. 

Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits (a widely accepted framework for personality traits in psychology). It refers to the degree to which an individual is: 

  • organized
  • responsible
  • reliable
  • goal-oriented
  • dutiful
  • industrious
  • able to make and maintain verbal contracts (a trait that is greatly lacking in the world today).

In contrast, individuals who score low in conscientiousness tend to: 

  • be more laid-back and spontaneous
  • struggle with following through on commitments, being punctual, and completing tasks in a timely manner 
  • be less focused on long-term goals 
  • be more likely to give in to immediate gratification. 

It is interesting that this can all be learned through childhood.

conscientiousness traits

What does this look like in other cultures?

The argument as to why south-east Asian cultures do disproportionately better out of any culture is based on the fact that their family nucleus is very close and intact, with the father playing a big role. This creates: 

  1. conscientiousness
  2. achievement striving
  3. work ethic 
  4. the ability to delay gratification. 

Generally, the mother nurtures the children with love and care and the father builds discipline and structure. When these families move to other countries their rate of divorce is lowered as they have consciously moved for a ‘better’ life for their children to grow up in. 

We also see this with Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern families who do ‘well’ and flourish in Australia. They often have a healthy family with the father and mother, both as centres of the family complementing each other. Together they round the family out as a whole. However, if things fall apart and divorce arises, this is when we start to see problems.

How does a father teach delayed gratification?

So how does a father teach delayed gratification to his kids? It comes down to something he does all the time without realising. He teaches delayed gratification to his children in a number of ways, including:

  1. Leading by example: Fathers who model the behavior they want to see in their children are more likely to see positive results. This means demonstrating self-control and patience, delaying their own gratification at times, and showing the benefits of waiting for a greater reward in the future.
  2. Providing guidance and support: Fathers can offer guidance and support to their children when they face difficult choices between immediate rewards and longer-term benefits. They can help their children think through the consequences of their actions and encourage them to consider the future.
  3. Creating opportunities for delayed gratification: Fathers can provide opportunities for their children to practice delaying gratification, such as setting long-term goals, encouraging them to save money for a desired item or activity, and supporting them in pursuing their passions and interests.
  4. Offering positive reinforcement: When children demonstrate delayed gratification, fathers can offer praise and positive reinforcement, highlighting the benefits of patience and persistence. This can help reinforce the behavior and encourage their children to continue to make choices that prioritize long-term benefits over short-term gains.

Overall, a father who emphasizes the importance of delayed gratification and supports his children in developing this trait can help set them up for success in a variety of areas of life. 

The mother can also do this however, there still remains the scientific fact that men (in general) are less empathetic than women and have more system and process-based thinking geared towards problem-solving. 

There are of course exceptions to the above. And in any case, the ability to balance all parenting roles by one parent is a heavy task. The reality is we need healthy father and mother dynamics in families for ‘success’ in all areas of life.  

Delayed gratification Example 1: Dinner time

Let’s take the example of sitting down to eat at the table as a family. One of the kids asks “Do I have to eat the veggies (or whatever part they don’t like)?” or “Can I just eat the chicken?” or “I don’t like mushrooms.”

Children will generally ask or tell the mother because they know she is more empathetic towards their needs and situation, thus making her more easily manipulated than the father. Children learn to play into the mother’s empathy, guilt, or other emotion that they’ve figured out, to get what they want (instant gratification) and if this habit is not put into check this lowers a child’s conscientiousness.

The father is less sensitive to emotional manipulation and far more likely to push back on boundaries. This is due to the fact that men are generally less in touch with their emotions and specifically empathy. Most men feel empathy but not to the extent women do. 

This can be seen on MRI scans where a woman’s brain lights up to emotional responses in the brain. The man’s will also light up in the same place but not as much. 

There is also the fact that all men have an instinct in them to not be pushed around by people they deem underneath them. Men have a natural order to a hierarchy. This has been recorded time and time again in research that looks into men hierarchies vs women hierarchies. So when children try to push dad around to get what they want he has the urge to correct this quite quickly as he subconsciously knows that disorder will occur if things are allowed to run free. His response often sounds similar to “No, you have to eat all of your veggies then you can have your dessert.” With this response, kids start to eat the food they don’t want in order to eat the food they like. This starts to embed delayed gratification. 

Delayed gratification Example 2: Bedtimes

Studies show that mothers set earlier bedtimes than fathers however, children still go to bed later than they would have if the father set the bedtime. 

For example, the father will often say “Bedtime is 9:00 pm but once you have finished showering, eating, brushing your teeth doing your homework, etc you can have ruff-housing and a bedtime story.” The children rush through everything they need to do, so they can get to what they want to do (delayed gratification) with the understanding everything will be cut off at 9:00 pm. Not only that but they are usually in bed and even asleep by that time. 

With the mother, on the other hand, it’s the other way around. The children know they can push boundaries – even more so when the mother is tired and stressed-out (something that is common in single-mother households).

The mother will say “Bedtime is 9:00 pm.” The children will play and muck around and when bedtime comes, they say “It’s 9:00 but I haven’t done my homework yet or brushed my teeth.” So they ask the mother if they can stay up to finish these tasks. She says “Okay” and before you know it, the children are getting in bed at 10:30 pm and have manipulated their way into getting more time and staying awake longer. This starts to build habits of instant gratification.

This dynamic plays out in other areas too, for example cleaning their rooms and doing chores or homework. They say “Can we play just a bit before doing our homework?” or “I’ve had a bad day” or “Can I do it later because ‘[enter a generic child excuse here]’”. Mothers try to engage their children in these tasks so they can learn the necessary skills however, the children know they can manipulate her when necessary. 

It’s important to note there are obvious exceptions to the rule such as when the mother is more of the rule setter and the father is better at the emotional support. However, in this case, we are not arguing the exception, instead, we are looking at unbalanced homes as this is where we are more likely to see the effects of instant gratification. 

Unbalanced homes often look like single-mother homes and homes where men don’t know their role in the family or how to parent. This is not an article that places fault or blame on those involved but one that is simply bringing attention to the important role of well-rounded, emotionally mature fathers.

How mother’s hinder the natural process of delayed gratification

This brings us to the issue of the mother letting go, especially if the mother has some sort of male trauma or attachment issue. She will have a hard time letting the father support her (and the child) and take the reins if she has an unconscious bias of seeing men as weak or as predators, as her biology kicks in to protect her children.

A lot of women have been raised by weak men or no man at all. A weak man is a man who hasn’t stepped up to his father’s duties, which looks like:

  • Holding back or not giving enough love, affection or praise
  • Not setting boundary reinforcements 
  • Not providing critical feedback on how to solve problems
  • Absence of ruff housing, playful teasing or stirring 

We also have social norms and beliefs in society that say ‘women know what’s best for their children’ and ‘men don’t know how to look after children’. These beliefs have become fairly cemented into our thinking however, men need to be equally involved in parenting children. 

We are also now seeing the second-order effects of where this is not happening, particularly in the high rates of ADHD children that are being brought up in single-mother homes. 

Part of ADHD is a lack of self-control and low conscientiousness. We know that we can teach these skills to our children through delayed gratifcation as it allows them to practice the skills required to control their impulses. 

There have been recent studies into this and the effects of neuroticism. It refers to the degree to which an individual experiences negative emotions (such as anxiety, depression, and self-doubt) and conscientiousness. It was found that the higher neuroticsim and the lower conscientiousness, the greater the risk of a child being diagnosed with ADHD. Studies from James D.A. Parkera,*, Sarah A. Majeskia , V. Terri Collin ADHD symptoms and personality: Relationships with the five-factor model is a great starting point if you would like to know more about this topic.

What can we do about it?

This all sounds a bit like doom and gloom, so what can we do about it? 

It starts with educating each other. If you are reading this you need to talk to your partner and have an open conversation with them about your family roles. 

If you are a mother ask your husband/partner:

  • what they think/feel about this
  • if he knows he does this instinctively 

If he’s not playing this role, have a conversation about how this affects his children and the long-term consequences on his children if he doesn’t step up and be the father so needed in society. You may even find benefit in exploring how your own emotions, beliefs and actions actually hinder your partner from showing up in this capacity. 

If you are a father reading this you need to sit down with your wife/partner and have a conversation about:

  • what they think/feel about this information
  • what you as a father bring to the table 

If you’re not doing these things already, have a conversation about how you can both start implementing these things and what are the obstacles and challenges you both need to overcome in order to raise your children better.

Meet The Author

Amy Doyle

Amy Doyle

Amy is a Holistic Counsellor who helps her clients move from this idea that they are broken or missing pieces of their own puzzle, to owning their story, claiming back all parts of themselves and merging together as one team to allow them to rest and be in their deepest expression.

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Sources and suggested reading:

Studies from James D.A. Parkera,*, Sarah A. Majeskia , V. Terri Collin ADHD symptoms and personality: Relationships with the five-factor model is a great starting point if you would like to know more about this topic.

Books by Dr Warren Farrell, one in particular ‘The boy crisis’ is a great eye-opener about issues concerning boys and men, you can learn more at

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