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How Can You Help Children Appreciate Delayed Gratification?

Where's the excitement?

What does this have to do with my kids? For years I have watched my own elementary-age children receive birthday and Christmas presents, waiting for the moment when I see the excitement in their eyes that I felt when I got that long-awaited bike. But it hasn't happened.

It's not that they haven't scored some great gifts. They have received most of the items on their lists without fail. In fact, I suspect the problem may be that they have gotten too many great presents.

Like me, my wife grew up envying friends who got everything they wanted. So when we had our children, she wanted to give them all of the things we saw our rich childhood friends receive. We've done our best to get them nearly everything they've ever put on a wish list, hoping we'll witness the elation we would have felt in getting that kind of stuff at their age.

No such luck. Sure, they'll usually crack a fleeting smile upon opening a present - but then it's calmly on to the next gift. Often they won't even ask to open some of the toys they received when the party is over. The pleasure centers in their brains appear to be overloaded by getting all of this stuff, and now, like the longtime addict who needs epic amounts of opiates to feel the slightest high, they're hardly swayed by routine offerings.

Thankfully, this hasn't resulted in spoiled attitudes on the kids' part. They always kindly thank the gift-givers and I think they understand that they have it pretty sweet in the material-goods department. But because they have never felt the sting of prolonged want, it doesn't seem that they can feel the highs associated with getting a long-awaited gift.

(Note: So no one misunderstands, we've not endangered our financial standing by purchasing any of these gifts. My family remains part of the working class, so our presents consist mainly of reasonably priced dolls and scooters - as opposed to ponies and private concerts by teen pop stars.)

So lately I have taken a stand: Let's not buy the frivolous gifts they won't remember. Let's not indulge the requests they make on a whim. Let's stop giving them the instant gratification I suspect has hurt their capacity to appreciate a delayed reward.

Trouble is, it may be too late. Scientists say that much of the brain's structure is formed by age 5, which may mean that my kids will forever be unimpressed by new BMX bikes and the like. Still, that won't stop me from trying to help them achieve at least some of the excitement I got on Christmas morning in 1987.

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