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Preschool self-control and pretzel logic.

Preschool self-control and pretzel logic

Do you want a couple of small cookies now, or can you wait 15 minutes for five pretzels? Children as young as 4 years of age who hold out for the bigger reward on tests of this kind cope better with frustration and stress as adolescents and may perform better academically, according to a report in the May 26 SCIENCE.

Young children develop specific psychological strategies to maintain self-control in the pursuit of future goals, say psychologist Walter Mischel of Columbia University in New York City and his colleagues. The ability to delay gratification, they add, constitutes an important aspect of intelligence that researchers have often overlooked.

In the early 1970s, the researchers tested 53 4-year-olds from middle-class families. An experimenter presented each child with a pair of treats before leaving the room. To attain the preferred treat--five pretzels as opposed to two cookies, for example -- youngsters had to wait for the experimenter to return about 15 minutes later. They could press a buzzer at any time to end the waiting period and obtain the less preferred treat.

When rewards were hidden from view, children waited longer on average than when rewards were in plain sight. But the way children thought about the treats appears critical to their self-control, the researchers contend. Waiting time decreased for children asked to focus on "arousing" features of a reward, such as the taste of a pretzel. Delays increased if they were told to imagine "abstract" qualities of a reward, such as thinking about pretzel sticks as long, brown logs.

The spontaneous use of abstract thinking to foster self-control emerges between ages 9 and 12, Mischel and his coworkers say.

In a 10-year follow-up of the preschool sample, children who delayed longer when rewards were visible were rated in adolescence by their parents as significantly more attentive and able to concentrate, goal-oriented and intelligent. Their parents also viewed them as more able to resist temptation, tolerate frustration and cope with stress.

Scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now available for 35 subjects, are also substantially higher for those who delayed gratification longer as preschoolers. A larger sample needs to be studied to confirm this finding, the researchers caution.

Nevertheless, they say, teaching children self-control strategies to attain desired goals may improve their academic and social skills later in life.
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:May 27, 1989
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