In the 1970’s an American Psychologist by the name of Walter Mischel conducted a social experiment with pre-school aged children called The Marshmallow Test. Children were put in a room and given a single marshmallow. The children were told that they could choose to eat it now or wait until the researcher returned (15 minutes later) and would be given another one, but if they chose to eat the first without waiting, they wouldn’t receive the second. Some kids gobbled that marshmallow right up (instant gratification) while others waited until the researcher returned and were rewarded with a second marshmallow (delayed gratification.) Either way the kids got a marshmallow, it’s not about depriving, it’s about seeing the value in waiting a little bit to receive a greater reward.
How do we teach kids the value in waiting? Humans are hard wired to seek gratification or pleasure. Both instant gratification and delayed gratification are important factors in teaching children to learn a new skill or exhibit a desired behavior. Oftentimes we consider delayed gratification, depriving of a smaller reward immediately in order to receive a greater reward later, but delayed gratification can be taught in conjunction with immediate gratification. Best results can be achieved when children receive several small rewards to help them achieve the delayed and much greater reward.
Parents use instant gratification techniques to positively reinforce children who are learning to use the toilet. In our house we used the, “check mark technique”. When the child went on the potty he received a check mark on his hand with pen or marker, followed by lots of praise and encouragement. Why? The child needs immediate positive reinforcement to encourage them to repeat the desired behavior. The marker technique worked well for two reasons: First it was easy to sustain because having a pen on hand is practical in any setting, second the child had a visible reminder of his good deed. This reminder helped the child recall what to do the next time needed to use the toilet, and it offered the child an opportunity to show other people what a good job he did. A potty training occurrence in our house went something like this…Child uses the potty, child gets a check mark on his hand, parent says, “Wow!! Great job using the potty!! Go show Daddy your hand so he can see what you did!!,”child shows off the evidence of his good deed.
An instant gratification system like this can take on other forms. For example, the child can receive an m&m or a cracker instead of a check mark or a sticker. However, there is a distinct difference between receiving food/sweets and receiving praise. A food reward is confusing because the child associates using the toilet with receiving a sweet treat, while praise reward is more intrinsically associated to the desired action. The child learns to associate the desired behavior with happiness, encouragement and pride rather than with food. The brain’s reward circuitry is complex, involving multiple structures, systems and neuro-chemicals, so it is important not to make the learning experience more confusing by offering mixed message rewards.
Instant gratification teaches children at the most basic level to repeat the desired behavior and get more of the desired reward. But potty training, like many other desired behaviors, cannot be successful on immediate gratification alone, there must also be a delayed benefit with an even greater reward. Otherwise, why would a child endure the struggle? The long-term reward for potty training involves establishing independence and self-efficacy in mastering this new skill. When children learn they are both capable and competent in using the toilet, this sense of independence translates to other aspects of their young lives. Potty training is not an easy phase for children or adults involved, but it can be made simpler and less frustrating by incorporating this immediate and delayed gratification philosophy.
There are different disciplinary techniques for encouraging “start behaviors” and “stop behaviors.” Start behaviors, or getting your child to DO something, particularly if he or she doesn’t want to do it, can be a challenging task for any parent. Punishment is usually not a great technique for start behaviors. (You can read more on “stop behaviors” in this blog). Some things that work for encouraging start behaviors are timers, schedules, and progress charts.
When our six-year-old expressed interest in competing in a local weightlifting competition his dad and I were skeptical about his readiness for such a competition. We decided that he needed to demonstrate enough maturity to practice on 15 occasions leading up to the competition if he wanted to participate, and we made a chart for him to mark off completed sessions. His immediate gratification involved crossing off each day that he trained on the chart with a delayed gratification of actually competing at the event.
Raising a child who is goal oriented and can see beyond an immediate reward leads to better impulse control, and more effective problem solving skills. Children learn to have a plan and execute that plan to achieve desired results. Does your child have a goal in mind? Help him or her set up and execute a plan by instituting smaller rewards along the way. No goals in mind yet, start with an activity that your child likes to do, and think about extending that activity beyond the child’s current capabilities. Does he like to ride bikes/swim/or go for nature walks? Consider entering a race and training for it together, or hiking a local trail that is significantly longer than your usual walks. Delayed gratification is a skill that is learned through participation and practice. Teaching children the benefits of delayed gratification can lead to happier and healthier kids!
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