Janet Sheridan: Something to anticipate
When seated by himself in an empty room at a table that held a marshmallow, the young boy covered his eyes and squirmed; a girl in the same situation looked around, then calmly folded her arms to wait. A few children, when left by themselves, patted the marshmallow; others kicked the table leg repeatedly or tugged their hair. Some ate the marshmallow before the door closed behind the departing adult.
In Stanford’s 1960s marshmallow experiment, a researcher told children age 4 to 6 if they could wait 15 minutes to eat the treat on the table in front of them, they would be given another and could eat both.
Only one-third of them earned the second treat.
Through many years, the researchers then tracked how the children performed in life. Those who waited so they could earn a second treat — or delayed their gratification — tended to have higher test scores, better responses to stress, less substance abuse, more education and lower likelihood of obesity.
When young, I occasionally mustered the willpower to delay gratification: waiting until Mom wasn’t home to boss and badger my younger siblings, hoarding all the candy that came my way for a year so I could have an orgy at Christmas and saving my babysitting money to buy an all-important Jantzen sweater. But, most of the time, I gulped the marshmallow.
Fortunately, my ability to postpone immediate wants for eventual rewards increased as I matured. In college, I studied so I wouldn’t lose my scholarship and took any job I could get to pay for my education: slinging ears of corn onto a notched conveyer belt at a canning company, caring for adults with the mentality of children at a training school, sweeping the college music building, running a floor scrubber up and down dorm hallways on weekends.
Along with most of my peers, I also advanced through housing and transportation options appropriate to my pay grade. First, I moved from my family home to a crowded dorm and had a bus pass. Then, when fully employed and married, my husband and I inhabited a series of apartments and drove a disreputable second-hand car we parked on the street. We celebrated each move to slightly better living conditions with take-out pizza for dinner.
Next, for most of those in my generation, came home ownership: a two-bedroom house with a single bathroom and a small garage for our newer used cars. Then, over time, we accumulated children, pets and enough furniture to require a U-Haul truck for our next move. Eventually, most of us owned larger houses needing more furnishings and accommodating more accessories: boats, RVs, snow machines, a TV in more than one room and cars we were the first to own.
As we progressed, we were satisfied with what we had and believed with work, savings and luck, we would slowly improve our living situations, comforts and conveniences. So, we always had something to anticipate.
Recently, driving through a suburban network of posh homes on large, manicured lots, I saw swing sets, bicycles, RVs and children in family vehicles exiting three-car garages. It appeared as though young families no longer saw the need to delay their gratification. Or had no reason to do so.
I worry about younger folks and their ability to wait for things they want. I fear they’re losing out on the rewarding experience of looking forward to a goal, working to achieve their dream and knowing the satisfaction of doing so.
What do you have to look forward to when you have material abundance at 30?
Probably more than a pizza on Friday night.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at auntbeulah.com on the first and 15th of every month.