A Strategy for Teaching Delayed Gratification

Title: The Role of Strategic Attention Deployment in Development of Self-Regulation: Predicting Preschoolers’ Delay of Gratification From Mother-Toddler Interactions

Authors: A. Sethi, W. Mischel,J.  Aber,Y.  Shoda, and M. Rodriguez

Journal: Developmental Psychology/ American Psychological Association

Year: 2000

Volume: 36, No. 6

Summary of article: This article investigated the ability of measures of toddlers (12-24 moths) attention strategies to cope with mother separation and intrusion to predict delay of gratification strategies in early childhood (i.e. approximately 5 years old). We know that toddler’s ability to delay immediate gratification is a good predictor of the later ability to delay gratification and self-regulate in childhood, adolescence and beyond. A study by Mischel and colleague (1988) showed that the number of seconds that a preschooler was able to delay gratification predicted success in both social-emotional functioning (i.e. self-regulatory and coping skills) and cognitive functioning in adolescence. These preschoolers that were able to delay longer were more able to pursue goals, more able to resist temptation, more able to exert self-control, and more able to tolerate frustration. All these characteristics are associated with overall success. Additionally, these toddlers had higher verbal and quantitative SAT scores and even more compelling this is when intelligence was statistically controlled for, meaning the effect of intelligence was taken out of the analyses. Additionally, research reveals that this relationship between preschool delay behavior and success-linked behaviors of competence, goal setting, and self-regulation endures well into adulthood. Ayduk and colleagues showed that preschool delay behavior predicts success-related behaviors in an individual’s thirties. This is a compelling argument for parents to be mindful of helping a toddler and young child develop skills to delay gratification and self-regulation skills.

The authors of this article identify attention control strategies (i.e. self-distraction) as one of the critical strategies for delaying gratification. Another strategy that they mention are cognitive reframing operations such as thinking about an aspect of the reward that is less tempting versus more tempting. The example given is the preschooler thinking about the texture of the marshmallow (i.e. the delayed treat) versus its taste. Returning to attention control strategies, a child’s ability to distract themselves both using physical strategies (i.e. eye gazing, looking at versus looking away) and cognitive/ behavioral strategies (i.e. engaging in alternative activities) are both predictive of later delay gratification and self-regulation success. This study looked at how toddlers reacted to mother bids for contact and separation and attempted to predict preschool gratification delay behavior. Toddlers that were able to employ distraction during a brief separation from mother were able to delay gratification for longer when they were five years old. Additionally, toddlers reactions to mother’s bids for interaction were investigated. Both toddlers’ distraction behavior in response to the bid for interaction of a controlling mother and toddlers’ approach behavior in response to the bid for interaction from a noncontrolling mother predicted both a longer ability to delay and more effective delay strategies when five years old.

What does this mean for parents: This study emphasizes the importance of skills that aid a child to delay gratification. The study discusses, specifically, attentional strategies aimed at distracting the child from arousing and overstimulating stimuli. The separation from mother in this study was distressing for the toddler. The toddlers that were better able to distract themselves from this frustrating and distressing situation were better able to self-regulate and delay gratification at age five. Thus, this suggests to a parent that helping a child learn and utilize attentional strategies of dealing with frustrating and distressing events is important. This is often done without much thought when a baby is in infancy. Distracting a child after they have fallen or while they are waiting to get milk or while they are getting changed is often quite an innate way of reacting for a mother. As the child develops though these attempts to aid a child deal with frustration often fall away. When a young child is frustrated, often a parent, leaves the child to deal with the frustration alone or rushes in to remove the frustration. This study suggests that in these situations the optimal response may be to help the child develop strategies for dealing with the frustrating situation, either by modeling distraction such as acknowledging the child’s distress but then asking the child to engage in another activity or depending on the developmental age of the child suggesting the child do another activity in the meantime. An example is a situation where a child that is getting frustrated waiting their turn for a swing on the playground. A mother may ask another child to or a sibling to give up their swing. This would be an example of resolving the situation for the child. Another parental response may be to just let the child get increasingly frustrated, often then you have a melting down child on your hands. Extrapolating from this study, an optimal response might be to either go over to the child and say “Let’s go play in the sandbox while you wait” and go play with the child or to suggest to the child that they go play in the sandbox while they wait, depending on the child and the child’s age. Helping a child develop appropriate strategies for dealing with frustration will enable your child to build on those skills as they develop and carry them across a lifetime.

Another interesting point that the study illustrates is that different paths of interaction between mother and child can lead to similar outcome, i.e. the ability to delay gratification. In this study, a child’s approach of a mother that is noncontrolling and the avoidance of a mother that is controlling both predict later ability to delay gratification. It appears that the child’s ability to employ the optimal strategy in response to the situation, both in the case of frustrating situations (i.e. an interaction with a controlling mother) and in the case of rewarding situations (i.e. an interaction with a noncontrolling mother) is what is predictive of later success with regard to delayed gratification. This suggests that even in suboptimal situations within the dyadic relationship between child and mother, a child can still develop characteristics of later success. Whether this is harder to do, meaning less toddlers were able to, within the sample of controlling mothers versus noncontrolling mothers was not investigated. Additionally, as the authors of the study point out, the avoidance strategy of the toddlers with controlling mothers may, although linked to the characteristic of delayed gratification which is clearly linked to later success in life, suffer from a social-emotional standpoint. Avoidance as an attachment strategy is not an optimal socioemotional strategy. This study seems to support the idea that individuals with avoidant attachment styles can be very successful in life and as successful as their nonavoidant counterparts in the areas of achievement and professional success but may be less successful in the arena of emotional functioning. This brings up the question of the distinction between psychological wellbeing and achievement success and highlights the importance of parents to keep in mind both aspects and not believe that there is no distinction. Of course, both are most often deeply enmeshed. It is hard for most to sustain a sense of psychological wellbeing in the face of achievement/professional failure. Similarly, achievement and professional success is worth little without psychological wellbeing. It is the task of the parent to help the child develop that middle ground.

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