How We Flunked Teaching Delayed Gratification

Age is Not an Excuse for (1)At the start of each school year, fundraisers are ubiquitous across the country. From cookie dough and wrapping paper to magazines and chocolate-covered pretzels, items are sold to family, friends, and neighbors to raise money for various school projects. In the past, students have been able to redeem their sales for assorted trinkets, plastic novelties, and the occasional gift card. This year, however, many fundraiser organizations began to offer a lesson in delayed gratification. And that lesson failed miserably. 

At the start of each school year, the fundraiser salespeople host a pep assembly for our students (the soon-to-be sales representatives). They outline where the money goes (library books, athletic equipment, technology resources), how to fundraise safely, and what prizes can be earned. In the past, the grand-prize has been a recess spent in a mobile video game truck with your friends. This year, it was a $1,000 tuition credit at over 300 colleges and universities.

To add to the excitement, the host pointed out that many students participate in these school fundraisers for nine years, starting in kindergarten and selling through eighth grade. That would be an easy $9,000 slashed off a tuition bill. Think of the incredible favor you’d be doing your future self. What’s not to love?

Apparently a lot. This year, there was nary a clap in the crowd when the grand prize was announced. As a result, they promised to throw in a light-up disco ball to sweeten the pot. By the end of the fundraiser, sales were lower than ever. See, it turns out that when you’re eleven years old, college isn’t on your radar. High school seems to be eons away. Students are so deeply entrenched in figuring out how to open their lockers, what to order in the cafeteria, and where to turn in their homework, that they’re not thinking about the future. At least not the distant future.

They’re also well-entrenched in a society that has been preaching instant gratification to them since birth. This generation of students has never had to wait for anything. Forget dial up. Most of them don’t even know what a landline is. Nevermind researching in a library book. Just Google it. Want something? Buy it. Can’t afford it? Go into debt.

It’s not their fault, really. They’ve just never been taught and society certainly does not model delayed gratification. So what’s the solution? Like most issues involving our youth, there isn’t a simple solution. As far as a starting point, though, I imagine it has to do with talking to kids about spending, school, savings really early on. Otherwise, students will forever forgo delayed gratification and instead elect to redeem their prize credits for light-up plastic discos balls.

How We Flunked Teaching Delayed Gratification

6 thoughts on “How We Flunked Teaching Delayed Gratification

  1. On some level, I’m glad they tried to give the kids college money instead of something frivolous, but you’re right that it’s no surprise that the kids weren’t into it at all. Even though I knew I was going to a good college practically from birth, I don’t think I would have been motivated at age 11 by any size college scholarship. Paying for college didn’t seem like something I would ever be doing, because I just didn’t know that it’s an expensive thing that comes with big bills. I wonder if the problem is that kids today (or for the past several generations) aren’t good with delayed gratification, or if it’s just that the prize didn’t seem fun or like something they need. Oh well!

    1. I’m glad they tried, but you hit the nail on the head with wanting a fun prize. If student loan debt is really the next bubble, this little experiment seems to illustrate the fact that there’s definitely a gap between how and when students and their families conceive of tuition costs. Whether or not costs come down (they should!), it’s probably a conversation that needs to be happening sooner and more often.

    1. You’re right on. At fist blush, I was pretty excited about this switch in prize offerings. But as soon as the first sentence came out of the host’s mouth, I knew it had a flopped. It’ll be interesting to see if we can find a way to meet kids where they are and still teach delayed gratification.

  2. Interesting idea! But yeah, while I’m sure the parents might be on board with the grand prize, I doubt 11-year-olds even think about paying for college when most of the 11-year-olds I know don’t have to worry about paying for, well, anything. Maybe if they did a grand prize where 1/2 of the winnings go to investing in the future while the other half are instant gratification the kids would be more excited? Or even making it a gradual thing – each year raise the amount that would go towards tuition credits as the child nears college? It’s a great idea but just like any other advertisement or incentive, those in charge of the fundraiser need to think of their audience.

    1. Yes! It was almost like the head of the company read an article saying kids need to learn delayed gratification, and with this one switch, it would be taught. It’s going to have to be more gradual, like you suggest.

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