Parenting in the Age of Instant Gratification

By Greg Baer M.D.

October 26, 2023

As a child, I wrote letters to people . . . wait for it . . . by hand, with a pencil. Really. I folded each letter in thirds, tucked it into an envelope, licked the envelope, put a 4-cent stamp on it—licked again—and put it in the mailbox outside my front door.

 The mailman picked it up, and—if things went smoothly—my letter arrived about five days later at the home of my friend or relative. 

At the end of the day, the recipient read the letter and responded the next day—maybe—with the usual folding, stamping, and mailing. So, two weeks passed before I got a response to my letter, including a Sunday or two.

Where Does Instant Gratification Come From

Compare that to a typical communication now. A child texts a message on their phone, with both thumbs flying faster than the eye can follow, attaches pictures or videos, and sends it to a friend anywhere in the world.

The recipient laughs out loud and responds. Total time for a two-way communication? Maybe a minute, which is 20,000 times faster than when I was the same age.

There is nothing inherently wrong with speedy communication, but we’re failing to see some of its side effects. Like what?

The moment kids generate a word—or even a twitch of their hand, like in a video game—they are immediately rewarded with a response: an emoji, laughter, a video, a selfie, a word, a token, a treasure. Immediately.

How Does Instant Gratification Affect the Brain?

Why does this matter? Because immediate communication—among other influences—TRAINS children to anticipate immediate reward. That is certainly fun—hence our pre-occupation with screens—but each moment of sudden reward or pleasure is associated with a HIT of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, the same transmitter producing the hit from cocaine.

The more our children get, the more they want, and the more quickly they want it.

What Does Instant Gratification Mean?

Kids are drowning in a sea of dopamine, which is FUN—to be sure—but look at what’s happening. The more they get, the more they want, and the more quickly they want it—immediate gratification. Eventually they CAN’T STOP the pleasurable activities. THAT is the definition of addiction. And we parents enable them in these activities. We are their dealers.

Why Instant Gratification is Bad

As kids learn this pattern of immediate and frequent rewards, they become trapped by it.

  • They want quick hits in their relationships, which does not work long term because partners don’t like being used for long.
  • Children learn to seek quick results in their education and careers too, so often they are unprepared for a workplace demanding more and more preparation before employment. 
  • They also miss the fulfillment of many creative pursuits, like music, because learning the piano, as one example, in the beginning is more laborious and less exciting than playing a video game or bouncing around in the world of social media.
  • When rats are freely allowed to stimulate their own pleasure centers—either directly through electrodes, or by drinking cocaine in their water, for example—they will keep pressing the button or lever until they die from lack of nutrition.

It sounds insane. It IS, and we do exactly that with overstimulation of our own pleasure centers.

Who will teach children the joy of delayed and richer gratification? 

Not social media or games or other apps, where experts are dedicated to keeping them addicted.

Not the schools. 

The responsibility of teaching our children the way to genuine happiness—feeling loved, being loving, and being responsible—falls on our shoulders as parents.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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