Several Techniques to Teach Children for Delaying Gratification

Title: Harnessing the Need for Immediate Gratification: Cognitive Reconstrual Modulates the Reward Value of Temptations

Authors: E. Magen and J. Gross

Journal: Emotion/ American Psychological Association

Year: 2007

Volume: 7, No. 2

Summary of the article: I consider this article a seminal article for parents. This study which actually consisted of three studies built on past studies that have investigated ways to resist temptation, i.e. delay gratification. Prior to this study, there have been two methods for delaying gratification that have been studied. The first is attention-control methods and the second is self-regulatory methods. Before I discuss both, let’s just revisit why the ability to delay gratification is so integral to our lives and success. Immediately gratifying objects are available in our lives from the minute we are born. While in infancy, these immediately gratifying stimuli (i.e. mother’s milk, mother’s cuddle) should be satisfied, as the child develops part of the parent’s job is to help the toddler and then child learn when it is best to not give in to the immediately gratifying and how to not give in to the immediate gratifying. Parents naturally teach the ‘when’ to not give in to immediate gratification, using  ‘no’ or withholding immediately gratifying stimuli but less time is often spent on helping the child develop the ‘how’ of delaying gratification. The ‘when’ of this process is arguably the process of socialization but also important is teaching the child the skills for ‘how’ to resist temptation. I’ll discuss this more in the What Does This Mean for Parents section of this article. Resistance of temptation, also called the ability to delay gratification of an immediate short term satisfaction for a long term goal, is unquestionable integral to success. Lack of self-control has been linked to mental illness and behavior problems in children and adults. Additionally, the ability to delay gratification is linked to success in life within a number of contexts, such as achievement and health. Past studies have shown that two methods, attention-control method and self-regulatory method, can be utilized to delay gratification effectively. Attention-control methods employ an individual’s ability to distract themselves either by physical means (e.g. removing themselves from the situation) or mental manipulations (e.g. thinking about something else or thinking about an aspect that is not tempting about the object). Self-regulatory methods are built on the individual’s ability to regulate their behavioral response to an immediately gratifying stimulus (e.g. inhibit or override their natural response). So what are the problems with these methods? The problems are twofold. First, we know that we as humans have a preference for immediate gratification and that delayed gratification even if it is initially perceived as larger over time get devalued thus making the reward of immediate gratification seem to grow and the reward of delayed gratification seem to diminish over time, a process called delay discounting. Thus, as time goes on, the resisting of temptation in the face of immediate gratification gets harder. The phenomenon is easily observable in both children and adults. The second problem with both these methods, in particular the self-regulatory method, is that they are difficult to maintain as they utilize the internal resources of the individual. Past studies suggest that these internal resources are finite and can be depleted over time. Hence, dieting is more difficult at the end of the day then at the beginning.

The current study examined a third method of delaying gratification through a process that the authors call cognitive reconstrual. This process entails reevaluating a situation and assigning new meaning to the immediate reward and the delayed reward within a situation. For example, the authors had participants complete a timed math test while being tempted by comedy clips. They found that the participants who thought of the situation as a test of their willpower were better able to resist the tempting comedy clips and also rated the tempting video clips as less enjoyable compared to the participants that did not look at resisting the video clips as a test of their willpower. In another study, they asked participants to perform a physically challenging handgrip task twice. Those participants that reconstrued the handgrip task as a test of willpower improved their performance the second time while those that did not did not show improvement on the task the second time around.

What Does This Mean for Parents: For parents, this suggests another useful strategy that can be taught to children for the delaying of gratification and the resisting of temptations. If children can reevaluate a situation and reassess the value of immediate and delayed gratification this may be a useful tool in the development of their ability to not fall prey to immediate gratification. The participants in this study who redefined the task as a test of some integral part of their sense of self were better able to resist the temptation, partly because the value of the immediate gratification diminished. So what does this look like in terms of parenting a child. I think that helping a child develop a healthy sense of self with defined values is key. This sense of self will carry them through life and, as this study shows, aide them in their task of resisting temptation. A child that has a strong sense of self that is defined by the values they hold important will be better equipped to identify temptations as contrary to their own values and thereby able to diminish the value of immediate gratification and increase the value of their goals or delayed gratification. For example a child that learns the value of healthy eating and comes to see that as important to them will more easily resist the temptation of unhealthy food. A child that sees honesty as a value he holds important is less likely to lie to avoid punishment or get what he immediately wants in a situation than a child that does not identify honesty as an important value. If a child can explicitly connect the resisting of temptation to an important personal value and see a situation as a challenge, this may serve them well. There are some important caveats to this idea, however. First, this is where the art of parenting comes in. There is a balance. Although a child that can cognitively reevaluate their options in a situation in terms of their values will be better able to resist temptation, this child may be more vulnerable to negative emotions and lower self-esteem if they give in to temptation or fail to delay gratification which we all do. No parent wants a child that is so serious about themselves and who they are that they cannot deal with failures and shortcomings. Second, as is always important developmental appropriateness of this method of resisting temptation must be considered. While it may be ok to challenge a ten year old to evaluate a situation, for example peer pressure to engage in risky behavior, as a challenge to their sense of self. This approach for a two year old is far from developmentally appropriate. Additionally, I think that values cannot be taught but are instead absorbed. With regard to values, a child learns from what he witnesses not that which is taught.

So, how does a parent capitalize on this research but not overextend it in a damaging way? I think, in addition, to a strong sense of self, one must teach a child to be gentle with themselves and forgive themselves. Temporally, these two important values should be exercised at different times. A child or adult for that matter when faced with a temptation/ immediate gratification should learn to evaluate the situation as a challenge and identify all their values that stand in contradiction to pursuing immediate gratification. The value of being gentle with yourself and loving yourself, even in the face of your shortcomings, is one that should be ever present but can be used to flexibly respond to disappointments after a challenge is failed. By modeling these practices to your child, both the explicit reevaluating of situations as challenging to one’s values and the acceptance of failure, at times, in these situations, a parent can teach a child these practices.

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