Economists study the intergenerational transmission of skills and optimal human capital investment. Recent research has examined intergenerational associations of cognitive skills, trust and risk attitudes, income and educational attainment. We contribute to the literature on human capital formation by examining the intergenerational relationship of time preferences among mothers and their children, based on experimental measures of impatience.

Impatience is an important parameter in models of human capital investments, with implications for job search, credit card borrowing, and many other economic decisions. A common finding is that children become more patient during development. A potential explanation is that the limbic system, which drives immediate gratification, develops early in life, while the long-run orientated frontal cortex is still developing until the end of teenage age.

Although parent–child interaction is said to be the "cradle of action" there is not much evidence on the intergenerational relationship between impatience among preschool children and their mothers. One may hypothesize that a child’s impatience is directly influenced by the mother’s impatience through observational learning and thus constitutes an important channel for the intergenerational transmission of human capital.

In this study, the child’s impatience stems from a delay of gratification experiment. Mothers’ impatience has been assessed by a choice task where the mothers faced trade-offs between a smaller-sooner and a larger-later monetary reward with a delay of six or twelve months. The findings demonstrate an intergenerational relationship in short-run decision making. Controlling for mother’s and child’s characteristics the child’s impatience at preschool age is significantly correlated with the six month maternal reservation interest rate.

To sum up, the findings demonstrate an intergenerational relationship in short-run decision making. Mother’s and child’s impatience, an important part of human capital, are correlated when the child is at preschool age. Policies that are designed to improve mother’s patience would be able to develop the important patience competencies of her children.

Kosse, Fabian and Friedhelm Pfeiffer (2012), Impatience Among Preschool Children and Their Mothers, ZEW Discussion Paper No. 12-001, Mannheim. Download


Kosse, Fabian
Pfeiffer, Friedhelm


Time preferences, impatience, intergenerational transmission, field experiments.