The Hardest Promise To Keep- A lesson in Delaying Gratification

Do you ever set a goal like quitting smoking, losing weight, or writing a book, and then decide not tell anyone about it? Why do we do that? Because it’s easier to make excuses when no one else is counting on us or expecting us to keep our word.   

The hardest promises to keep are the ones we make to ourselves. My seven year old, Justin, was confronted with a promise that was hard to keep, and his experience taught me a lot about parenting and self -control.

I’ve invested a lot of time teaching my three boys to eat healthy although they don’t always do so. They love pizza, fries, chips and desserts like other kids. Justin, however, is the one who has most taken to a healthy lifestyle. This year, I’ve found him being more aware of the food choices he makes. He’s learned to read the ingredients of anything with a label on it and he knows whole foods are best even though he still treats himself to the unhealthy stuff.

We were vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina when we unexpectedly ran into Nick and Chris—Orly and Justin’s best friends from school. They were staying in a cabin in Black Mountain and their parents invited us to come spend the night. The boys had a blast eating Oreo cookies, pizza, chips, and any other treats they could find.  We allowed them to let loose because we were on vacation, but Justin knew exactly what he was doing.

In the midst of hide-and-go-seek games and running around like lunatics, Justin took me aside and whispered quietly, “Mommy, I’ve eaten a lot of junk today so, as of tomorrow, I’m not going to eat anything with sugar for two days. Okay, mommy!”  And he ran off to play again. I admit I didn’t take Justin too seriously. I thought he had said that to please me, but I never thought he’d follow through with his promise.

The next morning was New Year’s Eve. I woke up before any of the children and went upstairs to make my coffee and write. Eventually, I heard their voices echoing and their feet stomping downstairs. Our friends were making breakfast, and a delicious aroma of bacon and warm croissants wafted through the house. Justin came upstairs; I could see the prideful look on his face.

“Mommy, Nick gave all the kids Oreo cookies this morning, but I didn’t even have one.”

“That’s great, Justy,” I smiled.

He insisted, “Remember I told you I wasn’t going to eat sugar for two days, Mommy? That’s why I refused to eat the Oreo cookie.”

“Yes, Justy, I’m very impressed that you’re sticking to your promise. Great job, buddy.” Pleased, he went off to find his friends.

Moments later, a yell sounded from the kitchen: “Boys, breakfast is ready.”  The kids gathered around the kitchen island and took their seats. Eggs, bacon, potatoes and chocolate-filled croissants were arrayed on the table. Naturally everyone migrated towards the croissants. Justin looked at them with a pained expression.

“How are you doing, buddy?” I asked.

“Those croissants look so delicious.”

I could tell he really wanted one. I wondered if he regretted ever telling me about his pledge to avoid sugar. Would he feel judged by me for quitting? He’s only seven years old, I thought. I’m not going to make him feel bad if he wants to eat one little croissant.

“Justy,” I said gently as I stroked his arm, “Don’t worry about the promise you made not to eat sugar. It’s New Year’s Eve. You’re with your friends. We’re on vacation. Maybe today was not a good day to make that promise. You can have the croissant if you want.”

Justin stared at the croissant. His little lips tightened as he thought about it. “No, mommy. I’m not going to eat any.”

I prodded him. “Justin, you realize you didn’t make this promise to me. You made this promise to yourself. I will not be disappointed if you eat the croissant. You’re not letting me down if you eat it. I want you to be happy and enjoy yourself.”

“I know mommy. Can I have some eggs and bacon please?”

I was amazed. My little boy was showing self-discipline and strength. I put a generous serving of eggs and bacon on his plate and handed it to him. “Justin, the hardest promises to keep in life are the ones we make to ourselves. The fact that you’re keeping this promise to yourself shows me that you can do anything. You’re going to be successful in everything you do, son.”

A huge smile came across his face. He enjoyed his eggs and bacon.

Delayed gratification means you resist the temptation for an immediate reward in order to receive a later reward. This concept was proven many years ago by a psychological study known as “The Marshmallow Test.”  My dad popularized this test with his book, “Don’t Eat The Marshmallow…Yet!” Delaying gratification is something we can learn to do, but it’s not always easy.

Although I’m a big proponent of “not eating the marshmallow” the way my dad taught me, here I was encouraging Justin to do just that. I didn’t want him to feel like he was being deprived of something he wanted or sacrificing on his vacation. I didn’t want him to think I was going to be disappointed in him because he broke his promise.  I used every excuse in the book, and then realized, those are the justifications we all use when we want instant gratification. We spend more money than we should, we eat things we should avoid, we sleep in and don’t make it to the gym. And we justify our actions with acceptable excuses like:

“I’m on vacation,” or

“This is a special occasion,” or

“You only live once.”

Those things are true, but they are excuses nonetheless.  

Justin missed eating that croissant for five minutes, but what he gained in those five minutes will last him a lifetime. He felt empowered by following through on his choice, and that made him happy.

It’s hard to keep promises we make to ourselves, because it’s easy to talk ourselves out of it. That’s why I always encourage people to have accountability partners when trying to reach goals. But even your accountability partners can enable you to make excuses for yourself, like I did with Justin.  We’re not perfect and there will be times we make excuses to get out of keeping promises. But the more mindful we are about it, the more control we can take over our own actions. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to us, we can learn how to have self-control.

Next time you want to break a promise you’ve made to yourself, and no one is watching or someone is encouraging you to do it, remember you have the power to delay gratification. See yourself empowered by your own self-control.

A Moment of Clarity

It’s “the little wins” that set us up for “the big wins.” With every choice we make, we’re creating our own success story. My little boy taught me that.