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How many of you have been on a diet for a few days when a colleague comes to work selling chocolates for a fundraiser? Do you give in and buy a chocolate; it’s for a good cause after all? Or do you resist?

Impulse control: Can it be learnt?

How many of you have been on a diet for a few days when a colleague comes to work selling chocolates for a fundraiser? Do you give in and buy a chocolate; it’s for a good cause after all? Or do you resist?

Many of you will be familiar with the experiment conducted by Dr Mischel in 1965 involving four year olds and marshmallows. Mischel invited individual children into a room where a marshmallow was on the table. The man who brought the child into the room explained that he had to step out for a couple of minutes and if the child wanted to, he could eat the marshmallow. However, if he could wait and not eat the marshmallow until he returned the child would get two marshmallows.

Mischel followed the children into adult life and discovered that those children who displayed the ability to delay gratification were more socially competent, self-assertive, dependable and performed better at school as they grew older.

Other studies showed similar results: individuals who had self-control did better on a whole range of variables.

Mischel initially believed that the ability to delay gratification was a result of a certain personality type.

In a subsequent study with Albert Bandura, Mischel placed children who had not shown the ability to delay gratification in contact with adult role models who showed how to delay gratification. These adults engaged in some kind of distracting activity or put the heads down for a nap. The children who observed these adults later showed the ability to delay gratification. That is, they had learnt from their experience with the adult role models.

The implications for parents are clear. If our children display characteristics such as impulsivity, we can help them learn more beneficial ways to deal with the world. Parents can role model the appropriate behaviour and talk to their children about the strategies they used.

Two main factors seem to influence children’s and adults’ ability to delay gratification. Children and adults are more likely to delay gratification if they trust they will eventually get the better reward. That is, if they believe the person or organisation that is offering the reward is likely to follow through on the offer, they will be more inclined to hold out.

Second, people will generally only display the delaying behaviour if they have the skills to turn what might be tedious waiting time into a more enjoyable (or at least tolerable) time. In the original experiment, children who delayed eating the marshmallow showed a range of behaviours including turning their chairs away, singing, inventing games with their hands and feet and talking to themselves to help them pass the time.

Parents can help younger children delay gratification by distracting them. Many parents find themselves doing this instinctively. They give four year old Holly, nagging for snacks just before dinner, a job to do. However, be aware that children younger than about four, generally haven’t yet developed the parts of the brain that allow them to delay gratification of their own accord.

Older children need to learn how to distract themselves by redirecting their emotions. This is more likely to happen if children understand that emotions don’t always need to be acted upon. Older children who are able to focus on the bigger picture will be able make choices that allow them to achieve their goals.

In the book Influencer, the authors contend that many social skills, including the ability to delay gratification, can be learnt. This is good news for most of us! They maintain that while we accept that practice improves performance for sport, musical performance and technical skills, few people would think to practice the skills needed to delay gratification, be a better team member, or to negotiate with a boss. They claim that with the right kind of practice, we can all learn to be socially more competent.

– Simone Wallington © 2008 Parentshop™ Pty Ltd


Influencer by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler is available through Parentshop

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