Forget Delayed Gratification: What Kids Really Need Is Cognitive Control

Excellent (and, for me, vindicating) article about just how important cognitive control and the ability to focus is, a skill that I believe is rapidly being lost in today’s hyper-distracted environments.


By now, we’ve all heard about the famous marshmallow test, in which 4-year-olds are told they can either have the juicy one in front of them now, or two later. The 40-year-old experiment, which has been replicated using a variety of enticements, purports to prove that children who can delay gratification will meet with the most success in life. But fighting off impulses is just one part of a much broader and more predictive mental skill, one that scientists call cognitive control or the ability to manage your attention.

Cognitive control plays a central role in mental skills ranging from plain concentration and focus (on your homework, not that text from your BFF) to calming down after you get upset (say, when you finally read that text). A study published in 2011 tracked 1,000 children in New Zealand after rigorously testing them in elementary school for cognitive control. By their…

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2 responses to “Forget Delayed Gratification: What Kids Really Need Is Cognitive Control

  1. Konni Hendricks

    I’ve always been a bit self critical when it comes to writing so as a result, my texts tend to read like mini-novels rather than a quickie “get your point across” message. I rarely even use the common emotive abbreviations such as LoL, LMAO, Fml, btw, etc etc.. When I was a child and a teenager, there was no such thing as a Cell phone nor was it something we (my peers and I) ever thought would become such a routine and daily normality. My younger sister by eight years however, was handed her very own Mobile at the ripe age of 12 and thus began the complete destruction and break down of her writing, her speech, and her academics. Within a few short years, a child I once thought of as bright and full of potential, began to seem dim upstairs.. if you know what I mean. She was failing in school miserably, and most of all, in the subjects that require more reading and writing than others. Her vocabulary seemed very lacking. When I did manage to intercept the occasional homework assignment, I saw that replacing words with a single letter (You=U / Are-Our=R / See=C etc ) seemed to be her new routine standard. “sissa” She calls me Sissa.. “sissa cud u cum pik me up an take me 2 ur house? i wud like 2 c pipin an palee fer a wile” is one example I recall. She wanted to come over and play with my dogs Pippin (LotR inspired) and Pally (short for Paladin, the class I played on World of Warcraft). I’d be so disappointed when reading stuff she’d written in that fashion. To this day I’m still not sure whom or what is to blame. The Cell? Her teachers at school? Her own apathy that often comes with being a pre-teen and teenager alike? Myself? My single parent Mother? Perhaps it’s a mixture of all the aforementioned. My Mom is a very intelligent woman. She writes well and is well-spoken. My older sister is both as well. It’s difficult to grasp how my younger sister just didn’t inherit that trait with three intellectual women raising her. My older sister and I helped my Mom out a great deal. I know her teachers weren’t complete failures at their profession because the vast majority of them had once been my teachers. It becomes more and more evident as I delve that the Cell phone MUST have played a significant role in what I can only think of as stunting her phraseology and penmanship. She completely stopped challenging herself to improve her mental agglomeration where reading, writing, and speaking are concerned. She is now 19 years old and still, her writing is elementary at best. She uses all the usual verbal hiccups you hear from younger teenagers. Axe = Ask… Pacifically = Specifically.. Prostistute = Prostitute (yes she really says it like that). No matter how many times I correct her, before I can count to ten, twirl three circles, and jump backwards over a goat she’s doing it again. Same mistakes over and over. One thing is for sure, the generation born with silver Cell phones in their mouths is definitely headed nowhere fast on the Scholar Express. What say you to this matter of my dim young sister, Professor Jun Kim? You’d have my “thnx” for your opinion. 😉

  2. Hey, Konnni! Thanks for sharing this very interesting personal story/experience on my shabby, defunct blog—haha. As with all things, my personal feeling is that what you’re describing is a phenomenon that is a very common yet also very complex thing going on these days. A lot of kids have similar problems and I believe that each case is due to a unique combination of factors and that we can’t pin it down to just one thing.

    Having said that, there is one common denominator and that is the proliferation of communications media. I use the term “communications media” and not just smartphones or cell phones because it’s the entire infrastructure of modern communications media that is contributing to what I see as a kind of cognitive sluggishness on the part of a lot of kids (not all kids, certainly, but a lot). It’s the combination of Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, instant messaging, texting and the gazillion apps they use.

    It’s a double-sided thing, though, because in some ways they’re very smart and their brains are even more developed in certain ways than people of my generation’s brains were developed at the same age. Different kinds of technology come more naturally and intuitively to them, for example, whereas for my generation there’s a learning curve (and for my parents’ generation an even steeper learning curve!). This is good in the sense that technology is increasingly becoming a form of communication just like reading and writing were in previous generations. Eventually in the future, it will be people like those of my generation and older who will be the stunted, handicapped ones. However, for now, language and things like speaking and writing are still the dominant forms of communication and many kids of the newer generations are definitely behind on that.

    My own proposed solution wouldn’t be to take away their smartphones or to claim that these phones are ruining the new generations. Rather, I think it’s about balance. It’s about training them to use this technology wisely and intelligently. This technology we give to them since birth is a powerful thing and yet we just thrust it upon them without even showing them how to use it. It’s almost like letting them drive without learning how. Scientific studies are showing that their neurochemistry is fundamentally being altered and not always in good ways. They can’t hold a thought, for example.

    This has larger implications than people realize. People don’t believe me when I say this, but consider how much intense, sustained focus and concentration certain kinds of jobs require. Think of surgery, for example, or aviation, industries that require people to have strong concentration skills for extended periods. People’s safety depends on it. But the smartphone addiction is like a nicotine addiction, almost literally. The brain gets a little dopamine hit whenever we hear that texting bell and if it’s a nice, pleasant text (the kind we want to get). Or even if it’s not a nice text then we get disappointed and can’t wait for that next text which WILL be nice and give us our dopamine fix. And this happens every ten mins., it seems like, for kids. Thy taking their phones away for just a few hours. They get restless like a drug addict. They dont know what to do with themselves. Hence, even when their phones aren’t present or they can’t use it (like on a plane), their brains are STILL distracted because they’ve become neurochemically addicted to the stimuli.

    The solution? We need to TRAIN them. I love having a smartphone and appreciate the convenience it offers. But I’m not enslaved to it. I’m very conscious when I’m using it; it’s not an unconscious habit. Therefore, even when I’m without it, or can’t use it, or don’t WANT to use it (like when I’m listening to a friend talk and don’t want to be rude or distract myself), I have no problem controlling myself. It’s because I’ve trained myself.

    The brain is a thing of habit. By all means, give kids access to this technology. But we need to train them. I know how. But I can’t get into it here as I’ve already been rambling on here for too long and gotta go do some other stuff now, lol.

    But I hope this gave you some food for thought. Thanks again for the comments!

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