Mind & Meaning: Delayed gratification is good for children
Published 22/02/2010 | 05:00
Lent is now upon us and throughout the country people are engaged in "penance, fasting and almsgiving", the traditional practices throughout Christendom for centuries. But the demands of Lent are very different from what they used to be: in Ireland in the 1950s, dance halls closed down and festive activities were forbidden.
Now, instead, people give up some vice or engage in good works. Typically, the Trocaire boxes come out while giving up cigarettes or alcohol are the most common examples of fasting.
The 40 days' penance before Easter is regarded in religious circles as a time of preparation before the celebration of that feast. But even those with secular leanings frequently use Lent to renew their new year's resolutions.
For many the benefits are a mixture of both: the spiritual benefits bestowed on the almsgiver coupled with the health benefits of giving up some vice are an appealing mix.
Children, who traditionally avoid sweets during Lent, may not see it that way. And Sunday, traditionally regarded as a feast day, is the time when for a few hours they are once again absolved of any guilt around this unhealthy habit.
In recent times a positive/good versus negative/bad split has developed and the emphasis has been more on engaging in some positive action, such as giving to the poor, rather than on negative acts, such as not doing something that is liked, for example avoiding alcohol or sweet things.
This change in emphasis is very appealing since it is much easier to do something that makes us feel good and worthy than it is to eschew what we like and get pleasure from.
But there are myriad instances throughout life when we have to avoid and control our visceral and atavistic pleasures.
We might have a strong desire to say something hurtful to humiliate an adversary or to tell a risque joke to our friend while our mother is sitting beside us.
We might consider interrupting an inarticulate speaker at a conference or throwing water over a person who insults us. For the most part, we exercise control and choose a judicious moment to make a measured response. Our gratification is delayed in the interests of courtesy, respect and civility.
Giving up some activity during Lent may thus be part of our wider social education that trains us in restraint and reflection.
There is ample evidence now that many youngsters are unable to defer gratification, as they have never been taught how to or even that they must.
Feral young men who steal and injure simply to procure a mobile phone, the drug abuser who scurries to his supplier for a syringe of heroin, or the sexually impulsive teenager, have all, in different ways, acted on immediate uncontrolled impulses rather than exercising restraint.
A recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that convictions for violence at the age of 34 could be predicted by analysing daily consumption of confectionery at the age of 10, after accounting for social and individual variables normally linked to violence.
The author, Simon Moore, and colleagues from the University of Cardiff speculated on two possible explanations. One was that sugar itself induced the aggression by some direct chemical means due to possible additives.
The other was that both the excessive confectionery consumption and the violence were underpinned by an inability to exercise restraint and defer gratification stemming from parental attitudes that used sweets as rewards.
The study was not designed to test which, but it is part of ongoing work on behaviour through the life cycle. The authors themselves acknowledge, in further correspondence on this article, that it may have implications for parenting.
Perhaps now is the time for parents to revisit ideas about how we train our children in good manners and civility. Part of this might be to consider whether the old-fashioned idea of avoiding what we like, if only for a few weeks, might be part of the social education of our children.
Adults could engage in positive activities, such as encouraging their youngsters to give up the simple pleasure of sweets, while children could do the negative and stop eating them.
Both could reap rewards, not just in the afterlife, but in the here and now and into the future.