We are less than a week away from the next most significant loosening of the restrictions on our lives. I am looking forward to it. We can resume inter-county travel, we can meet several households outdoors and even indoors, if people are vaccinated. It means I can visit my parents in Dublin for the first time in months.
hat are the big-ticket items you have been waiting for? Maybe that hair appointment will represent a significant reward for doing all the right things while this pandemic has been rolling on. What have your children been waiting for? Maybe they want to see their grandparents, or are enjoying being back training for sports? Maybe they too want a better haircut than you’ve been able to deliver.
Whatever it is that you have been waiting for, you and your children have essentially been delaying, or deferring, your gratification. You have been putting off short-term rewards in the hope of even better rewards in the longer term.
Some of the earliest research on delayed gratification was carried out in the 1970s. In a classic experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel, children were told that they could have a treat (a marshmallow) that they could see on a plate in front of them, once the researcher left the room. They were also told, however, that if they were willing to wait a short while without eating the treat, they would get two treats when the researcher returned.
Some children ate the treat straight away and some waited and enjoyed two treats. By following the children up later, the experimenters demonstrated that those who delayed their gratification tended to do better academically and had fewer behaviour problems than those who had eaten the treat straight away.
This research may suggest that it is better to be able to delay our gratification, or that whatever character traits allow a child to delay gratification seem to be beneficial in other areas of development too.
However, other research shows that the issue of waiting in the hope of something better is more complicated. Extensions of the Mischel research have shown, for example, that when children are promised the double treat, but then not given the double treat, they revert to just taking the initial treat straight away. Trust in the delivery of the promised future benefit is an essential part of our capacity to delay our gratification.
This is what makes waiting for rewards so difficult in the real world. Say, for example, you have been dieting and you have to make a decision about whether or not to have a glass of wine at dinner. If you decide not to drink the wine, then discover at your weekly weigh-in that you haven’t shed the pounds you were hoping to, you can feel really disheartened that your additional sacrifice didn’t materialise into the expected reward.
What some researchers have concluded is that going for the immediate reward can actually represent a rational action in situations where a promised reward is uncertain or unlikely. It doesn’t always represent a loss of self-control or a lack of willpower. As with lots of findings in psychology, collected wisdom had already reached the same conclusion: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
Take the uncertainty of the virus and the unpredictability of lifting of the restrictions as another example.
How many times over the last year did you try to plan something, based on the restrictions at the time? How many times did those plans work out, and how often were they scuppered by changes to the restrictions?
This is the dilemma for NPHET and the government in trying to minimise the spread of the virus. If they want people to commit to the restrictions, they need to be able to give us something to hope and plan for, that will make restricting our lives in the short-term worthwhile, knowing that the positive benefit in the long-term will occur.
Too often with the virus, we have felt we may be coming to an end point only to discover that reward of greater personal and communal freedom has been taken away again. This makes it hard to keep delaying or deferring our gratification.
So, if you want to help your children learn to delay gratification then set up situations for them where there is a very defined and reliable time-frame for the delivery of the reward. They need to experience that if they wait, the time does come to get what they are waiting for.
Secondly, try to make sure that whatever they are waiting for is achievable or deliverable, since that too is critical to the experience of actually receiving the promised reward. Promised easing of restrictions, or guaranteeing opportunities to visit friends or family may not be the best starting point.
Promising an ice-cream after dinner if they hold off from a biscuit before dinner may be more effective.