Immediate Gratification Part 4: Avoiding Parenting Pitfalls Regarding Children's Goals

Listen as Dr. L discusses the importance of goal setting and the teaching of the necessary steps to reach a goal for childhood success.

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For the written transcript of the Immediate Gratification videos, click here.

Immediate Gratification Part 3: Parenting for Success

This third part of the discussion about immediate versus delayed gratification considers how we can incorporate the research we have on immediate and delayed gratification into parenting.  First, a parent being aware of the importance of a child developing the ability to delay gratification is central. Understanding that the ability to delay gratification is integral to later success in life and understanding that this ability can be developed through the teaching of strategies enables a parent to play an important role in helping their child develop the skills necessary for cognitive, emotional and interpersonal success. In part two of this discussion, we reviewed three different strategies for delaying gratification. The first was attention-control strategies. A child can be taught to distract himself when he needs to delay gratification. Like playing in the sandbox, while he waits for the swings, rather than staring at the swings and getting more and more worked up. A child can also learn to do this mentally, to distract themselves by thinking about something else. Of course, these techniques have to be developmentally appropriate. A parent is not going to expect a three year old to mentally distract themselves from something extremely gratifying for an hour. The second strategy that was discussed was using internal resources to inhibit natural drives toward gratification. This one is a little more difficult to teach but we demand this of children all the time. It’s built into parenting. We tell a child that they have to wait until after they eat their dinner for dessert or wait until they do their homework to play. The third strategy, cognitive reconstrual, is one that should be taught. Children can be taught to reframe situations that involve delayed gratification versus immediate gratification as a challenge to themselves, one that challenges their personal qualities, such as perseverance or willpower. This is one of the greatest values of sports. Spending two hours swimming up and down a pool during swim practice, while your friends are relaxing at home, watching TV or playing, is definitely a test of willpower. A child must do some cognitive reconstrual of the situation to keep going. In sports, the child must decide that the delayed goal, perhaps a better time, is worth more than the immediate gratification of relaxing at home after school. Some children are able to do this by seeing swim practice as a test of their willpower that will pay off later down the road. Encouraging children to think about their goals in terms of what personal attributes are needed to reach a goal is a useful skill. Some parents worry that a child will feel too much pressure or feel like they are a ‘let down’ to their parents or develop self-esteem problems, worrying that they don’t have the personal attributes needed.

Now, we are going to discuss how to help a child develop the ability to use the cognitive reconstrual strategy to delay gratification without it leading to the child feeling too pressured or developing low self-esteem.  First, the goals being pursued by the child should be arrived at jointly by the parent and the child. A child that hates to be outside, sweating in the sun, but loves to play the drum in the air conditioning should not be forced to play soccer but instead encouraged to take drum lessons to play in the band. It is not the final goal that is important to the parent but that the child learn how to reach a goal and develop the personal attributes it takes to set a goal and persevere in the face of the pull of immediate gratification. Very few children will become the star athlete but a child learning how to set goals and how to persevere will put them in good standing for achieving goals throughout their life in all different areas. Helping a child to understand that they will always feel a pull toward immediate gratification but that the exerting of willpower and the reward of persevering is gratifying in the end is an incredible skill to give a child. Encouraging a child to persevere and rewarding them for that perseverance despite whether the goal was achieved is extremely important. Remember that as a parent your job is to prepare your child for adulthood. Once a child is an adult, they set their own goals so trying to be in control of a child’s goals in the long run is futile in the end but helping them develop the skills and personal attributes needed to reach goals is a gift you can give them in childhood. With that in mind, parents should not run away from a child feeling ‘pressure’. A child should be encouraged to aim high. Aiming high is also a message from a parent to a child that you think the child is capable and worthy of remarkable achievements.  By acknowledging the goal, but focusing on the steps and triumphs that mark the path toward a goal, a parent can navigate those tricky waters. The child’s ultimate goal may be to be the state champion in wrestling but all the practices the child tries their hardest in and all the matches the child does their best in should be applauded. Remember that ‘sweat’, i.e. effort, is perhaps the greatest contributing variable in achievement. Children need to value their ability to work hard and this should be made explicit by parents.  A child that has a sense of self that incorporates self-discipline, self-control and perseverance will be more likely to resist immediate gratification and pursue delayed gratification.



Immediate Gratification Part 1: Perhaps Our Biggest Parenting Mistake


This is part one of a four part discussion of delayed gratification and how not actively teaching this to our children may be our society’s biggest parenting mistake. First, let’s start with what we know about immediate gratification. We know that we as humans both as children and as adults prefer immediate gratification. Temptations are all around us and our susceptibility to pursuing immediate gratification combined with our ability to persevere for delayed gratification in large part defines our lives. Empirically, there is a lot of evidence for the importance of delaying gratification. Toddlers’ ability to delay gratification predicts their ability as preschoolers to delay gratification. In turn, this delay of gratification in preschoolers is predictive of academic achievement in adolescence and professional achievement in adulthood.  Additionally, the ability to delay gratification has been linked to mental adjustment across the lifetime. An inability to delay gratification has been associated with mental illness, behavioral problems and health issues in childhood and adulthood. Thus, the importance of the ability to delay gratification is well-established. Additionally, that this characteristic is present in early childhood and shows stability and continuity across the lifetime makes it important for parents to understand and develop in their children.

I believe that this is one of the biggest mistakes that many of American parents make. I have observed that American parents often try to eliminate the frustration that a child feels. With regard to gratification, delaying it is inherently frustrating. We all have a drive toward our immediate gratification, the immediate reward is far more gratifying than the cognitive representation of the possibility of a delayed one. A delayed one in addition to being temporally distant is often not assured either. Thus, developing the ability to pursue delayed gratification instead of immediate is antithetical to innate and highly rewarding drives. The blocking of drives that are innate and highly satisfying is frustrating to the individual.  No parent wants to see their child frustrated. Our tendency as parents is to want to protect our child from negative emotions, to protect them from having to feel frustrated, to satisfy all their needs and wants. Unfortunately, this beneficent desire can be a hindrance to their development of frustration tolerance and their ability to not yield in the face of immediate gratification. Thus, as parents we may in fact be doing a huge disservice to our children. In part two of this discussion, I am going to discuss methods that the scientific literature has identified for delaying gratification. In part three of this discussion, I am going to discuss how this knowledge can be used by parents to their advantage when raising their children.

Immediate Gratification Part 2: Strategies for Delaying Gratification

This is the second part of a four part discussion on immediate gratification and its potential role in one of our society’s biggest parenting mistakes. There are three methods that have been identified in the scientific literature on this topic. The first is the attention-control method. This method entails turning your attention away from an immediately gratifying reward. In one study, preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification, the eating of a marshmallow, was investigated. Preschoolers who did not see the reward because it was covered were able to delay much longer than preschoolers who continued to see it. Preschoolers who were coached to think about an attribute of the reward that is not tempting, such as, the texture of the marshmallow, were able to delay longer than those coached to think about the taste of the marshmallow. In the literature, those attributes are referred to the “cold” versus “hot” characteristics of a temptation. Another method for delaying gratification is the attention-control method, essentially distracting yourself. Those preschoolers that were able to successfully distract themselves by engaging in another activity were better able to delay immediate gratification for a greater delayed reward than the children who were unable to employ this technique. A second method for delaying gratification that has been investigated is the self-regulatory method. This research demonstrates that we all have the ability to self-regulate. This is the ability to override or inhibit a desired response, to resist temptation. Individuals differ in their self-regulatory resources. Some individuals have more self-regulatory resources than others. In addition, we know that over time these resources deplete. This is why resisting a piece of cake when dieting may be easier in the morning than in the evening after a full day of resisting. The third method of delaying gratification that has been studied is the reassessment of both the immediate and delayed reward. In one study, individuals who were able to assess a task as a test of willpower were better able to delay gratification than those who did not. Individuals who saw the completing of a math test versus the temptation of watching comedy clips as a test of willpower did far better than individuals that did not assess the situation in terms of willpower. This technique of changing the value of the immediate gratification and the delayed gratification is termed cognitive reconstrual. When individuals were told that the task was a test of willpower, the reinforcing nature of watching the comedy clips diminished and the delayed gratification of completing the timed math test increased. Watching comedy clips was reevaluated as a failure of willpower and completing the timed math test was viewed as a triumph of willpower. In short, when the individual reassessed the rewards in terms of a self ideal, the value of the rewards changed making it far easier to resist temptation.

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