Monday, April 14, 2014

Delayed Gratification and Marshmallows

Recently, I heard a mom who used to homeschool her children mention that they were getting used to being back in school. Though they still pursued their own interests at home, she said, they were learning the lesson that sometimes in life you just have the check the box. [insert condescending shrug].

That got me thinking. She made it sound like only homeschoolers pursue their own interests, and that school is only about learning the check boxes. And that somehow learning to check boxes is always bad, and that pursuing your own interests is always good. 

ACHTUNG! I cried. (I lived in Germany for three years, you know.) It is not so black and white as you make it out to be! Sometimes pursuing one's interests is fine. Hobbies are great for that, oftentimes we're lucky enough to have our careers include our main interests and even our passions. But learning the check the box is a key life skill. It means you can force yourself to get things DONE that you might not feel like doing, but still contribute to the social good. Like mowing your grass. 

Thus, I was inspired to write this post about delayed gratification and the marshmallow test. 

Very often I have to force my children to practice piano and go to their soccer practices, basketball practices, and chess club. 

Why do I force them you ask? Why not just let them find something they love that they will agree to do without an argument?

Let me tell you about the marshmallow test.

Back in the 1970's, Walter Mischel at Stanford University put little kids, ages 7-9 in a room and put a marshmallow in front of them. He told them if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow right away, they would get a second marshmallow. The kids had to wait fifteen minutes.


This video isn't from the original study, but does show kids doing funny things while they try to resist eating the marshmallow.




Following the children through their adult lives, the researchers claimed that kids who didn't eat the marshmallow were more successful later in life. The conclusion was that the children who could wait had a higher level of innate self-control. 

Personally I can't believe kids sat there for fifteen minutes. I know I'd probably get bored. But I know my husband would absolutely not eat that marshmallow even if he was bored. Because he makes logical assessments about risks and rewards. Which leads us to a more recent study that tests other aspects of kids' behavior.


But later studies evaluated different factors than innate ability. A study at Rochester University showed that kids who experienced unreliable events (broken promises like art supplies not being available) ate the marshmallow right away. The idea is that they had already seen the researcher break one promise, so they couldn't trust a second marshmallow would actually appear.

I find these studies so interesting and want to test my children, so watch for a video soon. I'm curious about their choices and behavior because I do want them to be successful and happy in life. I'm one of those people who doesn't buy into the nature versus nurture argument. I do believe people have personality traits, but I also believe you can teach yourself good habits. That's why I loved reading the excerpt below is from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
…That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time."
Reading that gave me a fresh perspective on the activities my husband and I pick for the boys, and supported my decision to make them follow through on the activities they (and we) have chosen. I don't mind if they are never concert pianists, Olympic medalists, Nobel Prize Winners. But I do want them to have strategies that will help them in their personal and professional lives. I think about the discipline I need to write every day, whether I'm working on a fiction project or a client's non-fiction marketing copy. I think of the discipline my husband needs to plow through lines of code unraveling the source of the bug. And I also know that the discipline we need for those activities is directly tied to our experiences as runners, the fact we played instruments as children, and other daily tasks. 

Sometimes you need to check the box in order to fulfill your dreams and pursue your passion.