How Can You Help Children Appreciate Delayed Gratification?

I had it pretty good as a kid. While I didn't get everything I wanted for birthdays or Christmas, my parents always gave it a good shot, and most importantly, they were always there when I opened the boxes.

Still, in the instances I wanted a big-ticket item from my parents, I had to be patient. Coming from a single-income family with modest means, convincing my parents to buy something like a new BMX bike - such as the 1987 Diamondback Viper I wanted more than anything at age 7 - required months of persuasion.

At the time, I fiercely envied my wealthier friends. Many of them seemed to get cool new bikes at the drop of a hat. But I began to view things differently when I had my own kids. It turns out that my experiences in wanting may have given me a gift that I wouldn't understand until adulthood.

But back to 1987 for a minute.

When, after roughly a year of asking, I did get that Diamondback for Christmas - thanks again, Mom and Dad - the excitement was dizzying. I used that elation to turn several thousand hot laps around my block on Christmas day. I would say that I only stopped to go to the bathroom, but it's completely possible that I didn't pause at all until the sun went down. I spent the evening applying stickers to my new rig until bedtime came.

Perhaps because it had taken so long to get it - one year being an eternity to a 7-year-old - I happily rode that bike for many years. Wheelies, skids, dirt jumps, sketchy wooden ramps propped against cinder blocks - the bike saw them all in abundance. It finally met its demise five years later with a snapped downtube, the result of one bunny-hopped curb too many. But it didn't owe me a thing by then.

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.

What is the best way to help children appreciate and understand delayed gratification? What is the proper balance between granting them things they want and making them earn others? And is there any hope for older children and adults who didn't learn to appreciate as kids the prospect of distant rewards?