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Delayed Gratification

I was struck today by some of the ever stranger political murmurings (I am temped to say yammerings) which are everywhere of late. A pundit in  the Wall Street Journal opined that fiscal austerity is like the 1970s study begun (and ongoing) about how, when, why and to what end children can resist temptation. You might wonder what a study of 4 year-olds has to do with a global economic crisis, but in any case it set me to wondering about the premise of the study—some kids are better at this than others, and it serves them well.

Here is a link to a thorough article about the scientist, Mischel, and his work:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=2

He says, at one point “…When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in…”  (This begs the question HOW DID HE KNOW??? I guess previous myths told him. Children don’t seem to have the benefit of this—but some resist temptation anyway.)

But I was curious if this applied to me, as I feel quite certain I’d have resisted any tempting marshmallows, at a young age. In fact I don’t think marshmallows would have tempted me,  but that could be amnesia… who knows? I do know I had –have–a lot of self discipline in my life. Was this luck? Genes?  Or my environment? (There is no definitive answer from the study to date.)

I think my other did me one huge favor, although her motives were entirely selfish. She made my study music. She wanted me to go to Julliard (where she did NOT go)—but she had me start studying piano at age 5. Talk about a habit that taught delayed gratification.  I dutifully sat and practiced my hour a day. EVERY DAY.

Later, when I added oboe and my sister added cello, she (my sister, not my mother)  rebelled—surreptitiously—by not practicing, but pretending she did. (I did not bust her. I think her teacher did in the end, but this is very fuzzy.)  I kept on practicing. I am not sure why. In high school I went through a depression and recall (somewhat vaguely) that I  sat and looked at my books when I was supposed to be studying. I didn’t read them—but I sat there! No TV… just… sitting and staring. I wish I could remember why I was depressed. I don’t. I just know it was probably my junior year—but I had skipped 8th grade, so I’d have been –what? 13? 14?  (I assume this was the junior year, as this was Berkeley Prep—but I went to Brandon High for my senior year.) But I digress–except to illustrate that I still delayed TV. Yay me.

I really think my sister would probably have gobbled up that marshmallow, if memory serves at all. She used to covet my Easter candy… which I kept in a jar for AGES. (I may have done this just to torture her-but I did not have that “gotta have it now” thing going on.) She invariably got so worked up on her birthday–which was Christmas Eve–that she was given one Christmas present early, so she’d calm down and go to bed. (I was in no way in agony over the fact that I had to wait to open what was under the tree—and we had to wait to open the wrapped gifts until our parents got up!) No, I don’t think she have waited to eat the marshmallow.

The study suggests these traits (ability to delay eating candy—or being “gratified”) are inborn, possibly genetic– but also malleable. I think my ability to delay “gratification” has many facets—but today, reading about the 1970s study and the ongoing investigation, I realized (or remembered) a few things. Like, my sister got into trouble in school for stealing—I didn’t. I kept studying music—my sister didn’t. I went to graduate school—she didn’t. She spent a lot of time overweight—I didn’t. On the other hand, she managed to marry and have 4 kids and stay for 30 years… I didn’t.

In any case, I had  used that ability, however I gained it and strengthened it to get through two years of intense study and the Bar Exam. Then I ended up using my chutzpah to get my first job. (Stay tuned. This chunk of my story took me all day for some reason. Whew!)

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  1. February 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    I admire that ability (delay gratification), as I have a tendency to be as impatient as they come! ha ha. I used to be very patient, not sure what happened. I will try harder 🙂

  2. February 27, 2012 at 2:39 am

    According to the study this (delaying temptation indulgence) can be learned. They had the kids learn to think distracting thoughts.(And you thought distraction was a bad thing!)

    I am not always patient–I used to freak out big time if (WHEN!) my computer misbehaved AT ALL–now I just work my way through various solutions.

    My lack of patience came mostly from anxiety– which came from being an HSP plus various traumas. I cant quite imagine how patience could disappear! Is it with everything or just some things-or people?

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