Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Can't We Wait? The Marshmellow Test

Have you heard of the famous marshmellow test? Maria Konnikova, writer for The New Yorker, wrote about psychologist Walter Mischel in October, 2014, after Mischel published his first popular book at age 84: The Marshmellow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

She writes: Mischel is the creator of the marshmallow test, one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, which is often cited as evidence of the importance of self-control. In the original test, which was administered at the Bing Nursery School, at Stanford, in the nineteen-sixties, Mischel’s team would present a child with a treat (marshmallows were just one option) and tell her that she could either eat the one treat immediately or wait alone in the room for several minutes until the researcher returned, at which point she could have two treats. The promised treats were always visible and the child knew that all she had to do to stop the agonizing wait was ring a bell to call the experimenter back—although in that case, she wouldn’t get the second treat. The longer a child delayed gratification, Mischel found—that is, the longer she was able to wait—the better she would fare later in life at numerous measures of what we now call executive function. She would perform better academically, earn more money, and be healthier and happier. She would also be more likely to avoid a number of negative outcomes, including jail time, obesity, and drug use.
Mischel followed the preschool subjects for many years, recording their SAT scores and other measures of success, before drawing his conclusions. The initial study included a presumably elite segment of the population, made up of Stanford professors' children and Stanford graduate students' children. Arguably, the group was too homogeneous for a sound study, so he replicated it with inner city children and found the same results: children who can wait--who can delay gratification--do better in life.

Last night my husband and I packed up the flawed computer we bought. He mailed it via UPS this morning around 7:30. Around 11:45 this morning I received an email from Amazon indicating they were refunding my money, which should show up in my account within a couple days. What!? That's insane. It arrived in Kentucky from northeast four hours? Did they decide to refund me just from the tracking information?

Really, I love their customer service, but I could have waited until they'd unpacked it and checked it out--you know, in case I'd mailed rocks or something instead.

My point is, we're a society who doesn't know how to wait...and businesses bank on that. Amazon is widely popular partly because they're fast. Too fast, it would seem to me. We rarely had any packages get lost in the mail until we signed up for a trial of Amazon Prime, which comes with a free, two-day shipping perk. Suddenly, packages are showing "delivered" which we never received--small packages mostly. It would seem that fast shipping comes with a higher rate of human error, or we have a punk kid stealing from mailboxes around here, which seems unlikely.

As a society, why can't we wait anymore? Why can't our kids wait anymore? What does this say about Christians and our relationship with God? I'll explore that question in a minute.

It's a day off school and six-year-old Beth wants Paul to make her a small fabric doll, which he's been making as sibling presents for a couple years now. Yes, he's creative that way, though the dolls or stuffed animals look impressive mostly to a proud mother's eyes--and maybe a sibling's. He tried teaching her to sew the pieces together herself, but that resulted in tears and two needle pokes. She's whined three times today because Paul wants to do other things with his President's-Day free time--though he promised her he'd get to it later and I believe him.

Mopping the floors and tackling the folding of linens, I reminded her of the marshmellow study and asked her to come up with strategies to distract herself from her strong desire--something Momma had to do when there were peanut butter cups hidden away for Valentine's Day presents.

Gosh, if I sew or knit or read for a hobby, someone runs out of clean socks or underwear. If I read a book, it's after midnight or forget it. That leaves Paul, kind-hearted and excellent with art and handiwork, to fulfill these requests. He's also a teacher at heart.

Around 3 PM she couldn't stand the wait any longer so she took my advice. She distracted herself by making her own fabric doll with googly eyes, felt circles for buttons, yarn for hair, all with glue (and a mess left behind of course). I don't know how durable her doll will prove, but for 24 hours it will be her new best friend until another stuffy comes along to love. She even makes stuffies out of paper--drawing a picture of a girl or stuffed animal, then cutting it out and dressing it up to carry around like a precious baby. She's a hoot and I love her to pieces--though the whining grates on me.

As a parent, I've learned that to teach kids to wait we have to endure some whining. Don't negotiate or offer something of lesser value to circumvent the whining. Just grit your teeth and bear it, forcing them to come up with strategies to distract from the wait or the desire. The psychologist in the study said kids who were able to wait distracted themselves with their toes, their nasal orifices, etc. They were creative, in other words, in their attempts to keep their minds off the edible treats in front of them.

Credit card debt, two-day shipping, whining and having fits, new furniture or clothes before the old are truly too-old, needing constant Internet access, over-spending instead of saving or giving to charity, sex before marriage, divorcing instead of working on hearts...they're all symptoms of a chronic failure to wait and a sense of entitlement.

What needs are we so rushed to fill--and are they physical needs, or spiritual ones? Real or perceived?

Isaiah 40:31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

I submit to you that we're too far from God as a society, and as individual Christians. and therein lies the problem. The Lord's timetable is perfect for us. He works all things for our good, all the time. If we don't feel that in our Christian souls, then we don't know our Lord intimately enough. We don't know his Word intimately enough. We're not hiding it in our hearts.

Let us not follow the world and demand what we want. 

Let us be in the world, but not of it. 

Let us teach our children that patience is a virtue worthy of our prayers and effort. 

Let us model patience and praying for patience. 

May we teach them and model for them the distinction between wants and needs. 

May we not spend more time on our stuff than we do with one another.

May our homes not be full of stuff, but full of life, love, faith, virtue, and relationships.

Psalms 27:13-14 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

Psalms 37:34 Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

Isaiah 30:18 Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.

Lamentations 3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.

Micah 7:7 But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.

Are you good at waiting? Are your children? What works to help you wait on the Lord?


Anonymous said...

'I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope'. Ps 130:5

Love that psalm. Could have written it myself (in a manner of speaking).

Waiting is something we've had to work very hard on in our family because impulse control and ADHD-type behaviours are part and parcel of the autistic spectrum. The youngest is 9 and, while very bright, struggles with impulse control. But we're getting there.

Our 'Now!' and 'More!' culture is so very sad. We unthinkingly worship the god of The Economy, even Christians. It is good to be reminded of the importance of waiting, and of the virtue of patience. Thank you, Christine :-)

Christine said...

Peter struggles mightily with this because of executive function issues too. We are making progress, albeit slow. He is distinguishing pretty often now between wants and needs.

Thank you for reading here and taking the time to comment, Sandy. Have a blessed day.