In my last article, we began an exploration of delayed gratification in children and its importance in academic and professional performance in later life, as well as its role in developing social and emotional intelligence. The ability to delay gratification is an essential part of how a child grows into a happy, healthy adult.
We looked at the theory of self-control that was described by Walter Mischel as hot systems vs. cold systems. The hot system is the immediate reaction to a stimulus, such as a tempting treat or someone cutting you off in traffic. The hot system is emotional and full of hot spots (the stimulus/reaction), and it dominates the behavior of young children.
The cold system, on the other hand, is a rational framework of ideas and mental representation of oneself and the world around them. When a stimulus occurs, a cold node is engaged and offers a more deliberate response.
Mischel developed this model through his “Marshmallow Experiments,” in which children were left in a room with a treat with the promise of a second treat if they could last fifteen minutes without eating the first one.
This experiment has been replicated many times and with many variations. In this article, we are going to drill down into some of the details of self-control that were uncovered by this research and look at some resulting strategies that you can apply for both yourself and your child for improved ability to delay gratification.
In the experiments, putting the treat in front of a child is a hot spot. It is a stimulus that triggers desire. Then the child is then told they need to wait fifteen minutes and left in a room alone with the treat. This increases both the duration and strength of the stimulus.
When the cool system is not yet developed enough, the stimulus will result in a response from the hot system. The younger the child is, the more likely they will be to give in and just eat the first treat. Additionally, if they give in, it will be much sooner than older children who give in.
The Impact of Stress
As mentioned in my last article, this system can be disrupted by stress. Strong acute stress and long-term chronic stress can interrupt the development of the cool system in young children. In older children and adults, it can overwhelm the cool system to the point that it begins to break down.
In one marshmallow experiment, kids were broken into two groups. One group was told to “think fun” before the experiment began. The second was told to think about falling down and hurting themselves or to think about crying and no one coming to take care of them. Those given positive thoughts were able to delay gratification for an average of thirteen minutes. Those given negative thoughts lasted less than five.
That is a very significant difference and indicates the impact that stress and emotional states have on self-control. We have all come home from a bad day and found ourselves eating or drinking things that we would have otherwise been able to resist.
When we have a rough day, or we see that our child is feeling frustrated, it is important to pay closer attention to the choices being made. Furthermore, we need to be mindful in applying the appropriate strategies to support successful self-control.
Easy Strategy #1—Avoiding the Stimulus
Let’s look at some of those strategies.
The first one can be summed up by the adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” When Mischel began his experiments, he and his fellow researchers assumed that leaving the marshmallow out would help the kids be more successful. Their thinking was that it would be a reminder of why they were waiting and keep them in touch with their goal.
They were wrong.
On average, the children lasted only a minute if the treat was left out. If it was hidden from view, 75% made it the full fifteen minutes. Clearly, it is helpful to resist a stimulus if you move away from the stimulus.
Anybody who has been on a diet or tried to quit smoking has felt their willpower falter when around people doing what you are trying not to do. It is difficult to order a salad when at a restaurant with friends ordering hamburgers.
As adults we understand this and develop strategies to avoid temptation when we are trying to exert self-control. I wrote about one of these strategies, using Ulysses Pacts, in an article on willpower and habits.
But do we disregard this in our roles as parents? I have had parents complain about their kids’ lack of focus while interrupting eye contact to check their phones. One parent went out of her way to tell me that her child was having a “bad focus day.” As she told me this, she was unable to disengage herself from her phone. She was so distracted, she was borderline incoherent and ended up walking away in mid-sentence.
Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it is a fair one for making the point. All of us struggle with our own abilities to delay gratification in a world that is trying to fulfill our desires instantly and with little or no cost or effort on our part. Through our phones, we have the world at our fingertips. With bodies and brains that evolved to survive food scarcity and to work hard for every calorie we consume, we have easy access to Big Gulps, food that is super-sized and the option to add bacon to pretty much anything.
We are swimming upstream through a white-water flood of temptation while trying to impart to our children the skill of gratification delay.
It is helpful in this effort to pay attention to what we are modeling to our children. Are you telling your child to wait fifteen minutes for a treat with your mouth full of marshmallow?
Easy Strategy #2—Keep Your Word
Which brings us to the next interesting discovery made by this research—the impact of the unreliable tester. In these experiments, the adult administering the test first made a promise to the child before the marshmallow was even presented. For example, in one study, children began with an art project and were given a choice. Either they could use well-used crayons or they could wait a few minutes for the adult to bring brand-new art supplies. While they waited, the crayons were left with them in a container that was too difficult for the child to open unassisted. As a result, regardless of what the child chose, they were forced to wait. For some of the kids, the adult came back with new art supplies (promised kept=reliable tester), for others, the adult came back empty handed (promise broken=unreliable tester).
This represents a relatively small breach of trust, but the impact on the children’s performance when they then did the marshmallow experiment was significant. When the test was administered by a reliable tester, the children waited an average of thirteen minutes. With an unreliable tester, it was only three minutes.
Previously, we looked at how kids demonstrated more self-control when told to “think fun” versus thinking about unpleasant experiences. I think it is hard to separate the impact of a more positive mind-state when you are getting to use new art supplies instead of old crayons from the impact of an unreliable tester, but the two seem so intertwined that it seems a valuable stand-alone concept.
My wife (Julie) and I have been careful about this with our daughter, Imogen. It is easy to say you will do something with full intention of doing it, without really thinking about the things that come up in life that interfere with your promise. It is also easy to justify these broken promises as being the result of adult things (important) taking precedent over kid things (not so important).
Julie and I have held the view that if we break our promises to Imogen and compromise her trust in what we say, she will be less likely to follow our instructions. But this research also suggests that if we are consistently untrustworthy, it could have an impact on her self-control.
Now I’d like to look at three additional strategies developed from this research. Each strategy has external and internal applications. In the context of parenting, external strategies are things you can do to support your child’s self-control and internal strategies are things you want to teach your child so that they can improve their self-control themselves.
External/Internal Strategy #1—Reducing Experience of the Stimulus
The first strategy is “decreasing the activation of the hot spot leading to impulsive action.” I realize the name is not terribly helpful. What it boils down to is reducing your child’s experience of the stimulus. The external application is to hide the marshmallow from view. As mentioned earlier, when researchers did this, 75% of the kids made it the full 15 minutes.
So you can help your child by simply reducing or eliminating their exposure to the thing that tempts them. Keep treats in a cupboard instead of on the counter. Keep the television and video game hidden when not in use (in a cabinet is great, but when I was younger, I covered my TV under a decorative sheet to help me watch it less).
You can help your child internalize this strategy by making it increasingly explicit as they get older. Encourage them to help you to find ways to reduce the impact of the tempting object.
External/Internal Strategy #2—Distracting from the Stimulus
The next strategy is “shifting the balance of activation away from the hot stimulus to other, irrelevant parts of the system.” Oh, boy.
So this actually pretty straight forward. It is the use of a distraction from the stimulus. An example of an external strategy is when researchers gave kids slinkies while they waited. When given a slinky and the treat was left in view, 50% of the kids made it the full fifteen minutes (remember that without distraction, they lasted a minute on average). What is interesting is that when they left kids in a room with no treat or promise of a treat, but they had a slinky, the kids only played with the slinkies for a few moments (I remember getting bored with my slinky pretty quickly when I was kid) which suggests the test group was playing with their slinkies for the sole purpose of distracting themselves while they waited.
This seems like a fairly obvious strategy, but I think it is misapplied by many parents since the introduction of the smart phone/tablet. These children’s minds typically do not engage these distractions as much as become passive receivers downloading data (see this article on the impact of screens on children and their brains).
Remember that your objective is to distract in a way that turns on and develops your child’s cold system. If Imogen wants a treat she cannot have, we might instead pull out her art supplies or a puzzle, both of which engage her mind and support her cognitive development.
For internal strategies, you can teach your child to think of unrelated things in the hot or cold system. When researchers had kids think of anything fun, including singing songs or playing with toys—a shift to an unrelated hot system (these are fun, engaging thoughts/activities)—they averaged twelve minutes of resistance to the marshmallow.
For your child, thinking of something else teaches them to engage their cool system. Julie and I have used this with Imogen since she could talk. If she wants something she can’t have and starts getting fussy about it, we will often change the subject to discuss something of interest to her, but is unrelated.
Say she wants to eat some of her Halloween candy when the timing is inappropriate or she has already enough. Instead of letting her get wound up and frustrated about not having a treat, we could start a discussion about whether she wants take soccer or tennis classes next season. She is interested in both, so this easily engages her mind while taking her attention off of the candy.
Note: It is still important for us to discuss the expectations around candy with her. That is a conversation that is less effective when her hot system is engaged, though. We have found that she is more receptive to those discussions when it is a more abstract discussion than an intervention of her cravings. For instance, we typically have those discussions in the car or when otherwise away from home and her candy.
This can also work with unrelated hot systems. When researchers challenged kids to wait for a marshmallow, but told them to think about how salty and crunchy pretzels are, they were able to resist for seventeen minutes! This was more effective than asking kids to think about how pretzels are long and thin like little logs (a less hot stimulus).
We have used this with Imogen for years. She can get pretty fussy towards meal time. She is a skinny kid with the metabolism of a hamster and, though we give her snacks throughout the day, she tends to run on empty before a meal.
When she gets in this state, she can find anything in her environment to be fussy about. It typically is irrational and random, and is simply a result of hunger and its impact on her ability to process things. Usually, we can interrupt her walk down Fussy Road, by asking her what she wants to eat. The question is not open ended—we give her choices between things she likes (“hot dog or turkey?”). This taps into a strong hot spot for her (because she is hungry) that is unrelated to whatever she is getting upset about.
Note: It is important that in choosing a distraction, it should not lead back to the hot spot. For instance, when people are trying to diet, it is helpful to not constantly think about food. But the focus on the diet itself can lead a person’s mind back to food and the cravings that await them there!
External/Internal Strategy #3—Change the Meaning of the Stimulus
The final strategy is “restructuring the meaning of the hot stimulus.” This one is pretty interesting. The external strategy is to use a “cool” presentation of the hot stimulus. Instead of presenting kids with a real marshmallow, they showed them a picture of a marshmallow. These children lasted an average of nine minutes, with most of them lasting the full fifteen.
Our approach to Halloween candy is we offer Imma to trade it in to use for things that she wants (like educational toys). We begin this conversation before Halloween, which makes the idea of candy abstract (like a picture). So far, she has always traded in most of her candy for things she wants (and that we prefer her to have).
Clearly, this would not work as well if we had started the conversation after trick or treating when she had just dumped her haul onto the kitchen table.
The internal strategy involves applying “cool” ideas about the stimulus. In one experiment, kids were shown a picture of a marshmallow, but told to think of it as real (converting a cool stimulus into a hot one). These children did not do well. But in a group of kids who were presented with a real marshmallow and then told to imagine it was only a picture in a picture frame, the children averaged eighteen mintues!
When Imogen was around eighteen months old, we began to use timers for transitions. If we were at a park, ten minutes before leaving we would tell her that we were setting a timer and that when it went off, we were leaving with no fussing. The consequence of fussing was that we would not come back to the park for a while.
Transitions are hot spots. The desired object is to keep playing. It is a marshmallow that is right in front of your child. Even worse, it is a marshmallow they can’t have after already eating some and knowing how much they like them.
By setting a timer, we established a framework with Imogen for describing leaving (the hot stimulus) in abstract terms (cool system). Every few minutes, we would remind her that the timer was going, what we expected when it went off and how much time was left. This reinforced the cool system concept for her. When the timer went off, the cool system was in dominance over the hot system and, more often than not, we left with little or no fussing.
By creating an abstract image (a picture) or concept (the timer going off) of the hot stimulus, your child can not only engage their cool system, they have a solid framework that can keep it in place even when the hot system would normally take over.
Over the course of these two articles, I have presented a lot of information. This is a large topic with a lot of research, and I have tried to keep the articles relatively brief. The result is that they are somewhat dense. There is a lot to unpack here. The ability to delay gratification is an essential skill for your child’s development. I hope that you are able to come back to these from time to time so that you can uncover things that you missed.
As always, please let me know your thoughts and experiences as they relate specifically to this blog and general to your life as a parent.