My post below, on a New Yorker article about deferral of gratification which in typical fashion does no theory and accepts deferral of gratification as a Good Thing with utter lack of criticism, is automatically linked to three posts on how to teach deferred gratification to your kids.
I teach a third grader who is a Chinese princess and human wrecking ball. She likes to move, she likes to carom about my classroom, so every week we visit the school library to return books and find new books.
Unfortunately she clamors for the Berenstain Bears, and each and every book in this series teaches a wheezy Moral Lesson. I have no brief against Improving Books, but the authors of this series are idiots.
The Berenstain bears are one of those isolated nuclear families so common in America, dominated by a female who has long ago forgotten that she wants anything, with a father infantilized by the mere fact that he still desires anything at all: Mother gets, on Christmas, tools to help her do her work whereas Papa might get something fun.
The children, often in cahoots with Papa, are forever having problems with deferral of gratification. Although the Bears live in “bear country” it is recognizably an American suburbia, with suburbia’s lunatic attempt to reconcile city and country, so the Bears, with Mama always trying to warn about living within one’s means, are forever being psychically raped by marketeers: the children are forever, along with Papa Bear most of the time, always failing to live up to standards that groan at them from the sky through Mama Bear.
Because these are so clearly North American bears, the possibility is never raised that through the road of excess might lie the palace of wisdom, or that one might be Powerless. It isn’t considered that the name of the state a person is in, when she is deferring gratification, might be “alienation”, and it’s child abuse to teach alienation.
These books are an insult to children’s intelligences. My own student seems less interested in Improving Moral Lessons than in Cunning Plans like a normal kid, but she’s in a different culture. It’s one in which no Improving Lessons are needed for the most part in the savage competition and struggle to learn English, Chinese, and math. There is in fact little time for Improving Moral Lessons as a separate subject: just enough scarcity (for example, of real estate) exists to make life the teacher, and my own student just finds it fascinating that the Bears have the problems they have.
Two alternative children’s books to The Berenstain Bears are the classics Eloise of the Plaza, and Madeline.
Most kids immediately understand how to relate to Eloise of the Plaza. They already know that Eloise, with her nanny, her messy room, and her failure to study is in reality a desparately sad and lonely kid whose jet-setting Mom in turn is desparately sad and lonely, and who has abandoned Eloise at the Plaza so she can use her fading charms to snag a second millionaire husband. Texts, in other words, create moral and conceptual boundaries in the child’s mind, not by groaning saws and maxims but by quietly presenting views of what it looks like on the other side of the boundary. Kids who read fantasy are better able to spot fantasy.
Madeline alternatively shows kids who are self-discipline of necessity in a postwar France of scarcity, with parents with diplomatic jobs under enormous pressure in the middle of the Cold War, who nonetheless are able, not to “defer gratification” (this is a given) but to insist on it when it’s right…as in the case of the visit of the trustees of the school, who say that the kids can’t have a dog; Madeline, with fine Republican fervor, insists on the equality of dogs and Miss Clavel winds up in cahoots with the children to keep the dog.
Genevieve, noblest dog that is in France
You shall have your ven-ge-ance!
Now, when one hears some of the brats in international air terminals clamor for gratification, one might think that DG is a real problem. But as my own therapist tried to point out to my Mom and Dad in the 1960s, we can inappropriately identify (that is, theorize) a problem in which were embed.
I was in the lobby of a four-star hotel in Hong Kong recently. Some British kids were whingeing for treats. But as I half-listened I realized that the real problem lay elsewhere.
The real problem was that when the father finished an email back to the UK recounting their trip to Hong Kong on his portable computer, he asked the mother to proofread it for him, and she snapped at him “I’m not your bloody secretary!”
That is: if you dethrone, as so many “feminist” women dethrone, the father (as Hong Kong author Martin Booth insults his father in his book Gweilo), then it follows as the night the day the children will whinge and get out of control, all the more so if the father, having his own issues today with his late or aging father, goes along.
Cf. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty: somehow, feminism turned at some point into the idea that men are a joke, and as a result Spacey is “too embarassing to live”. In American families, the joke is that fathers, unlike typical mothers, never seem to get rid of transgressive Desire for more than that which contributes to the family: Dad develops tics: he’s always in the Internet, or insists on listening to Wagner while collecting stamps, or like Spacey starts working out and smoking dope, or like me exits the system.
Successful fathers teach their kids how to reconcile desire and the law: but this is impossible if his desire is a fucking joke.
But instead of doing the work of looking at the family system, adults try to “teach” deferred gratification.
It’s much harder through example and precept to teach love of the world. I only realized after my divorce that the only sane way for me to act around my kids was as if the starting point was love minus zero, as I saw my grandmother act (my own relationship with a mother, who had me bring her coffee and cigarettes for her in the morning, and who let us kids fight for breakfast alone, is a matter for a separate post). Kids learn through example: but if their own parents “deferred gratification” in graduate school (or, like my own parents, in the war) the kids haven’t seen this. Instead they see the parents insisting on their formerly deferred gratification and naturally, the kids emulate this.
I would have been of course delighted to listen to my father defend the Morgenthau plan to de-industrialize Germany after his service overseas, to the mathematician Norbert Weiner at Harvard. Kids naturally ask, what did you do in the war. But all I saw was my father leasing enormous, boat-like Cadillacs. By 1962 I was fantasizing living in a country where cars were forbid, having grown up carsick in enormous cars without seatbelts filled with smoke.
American grownups have long counseled each other to take the money and run, to pay as little taxes as possible, so how, exactly, shall they teach their kids “impulse control”?
If the reason for “impulse control” is as I said in the preceding post deferring gratification in order to get a later gratification, then the kid is free to clamor for gratification now.
Don’t teach this insanity. Instead, teach any way you can the notion of worth in itself, the aesthetics and ethics (pre-ethical, pre-aesthetic) of what it would be like to value something for itself. Plunk the kids down in front of art. Take the blighters to church if you must. Or play and watch sports with them, waiting for the moments of purity: point them out, whether it’s a patient right-fielder, or a center forward.
As it is, the New Yorker article is mythological…it unwittingly assumes axioms.
For example, American middle-class grownups think of the poor as bad at “impulse control”. I took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Seattle to attend the Microsoft Author’s Conference, and I sure saw a lot of impulse control on that bus, whose driver treated us like shit. It takes in fact quite a lot of “impulse control” in America to be black and/or poor: in this connection, search You Tube for Chris Rock’s video “how not to get your ass kicked by the police”.
Blacks have long cultivated “impulse control” and deferred gratification, because it takes both to refrain from smacking Whitey upside the head in a racist society. Chris Rock is telling people nothing more than what my black friends’ parents told them: obey the law, turn that shit off, get a white friend, and don’t ride with a mad woman.
Sure, in addiction recovery, you do learn deferred gratification…or do you? Most of your seriously addictive substances cannot be deferred: they have to be given up. Oh, I will wait to shoot up until this evening…yeah right.
For Kant, man has basically only two states. He’s seeking to gratify biological needs, including artificial ones created by addiction, or else he’s acting out of pure duty: the paradox is that when one acts out of duty one is free in Kant.
Major Robert Shaw, commander of the 445th Massachusetts (black) regiment, is free, in Robert Lowell’s poem “On The Union Dead”, to “choose life and die”. Acts of pure righteousness, in other words, are like radiation from outer space: they create new worlds. Wouldn’t it be better to teach a kid about this ability to do, as Major Shaw did in South Carolina, the right thing out of free will?
As it is, the Berenstain Bears are ursine-subhuman, since the authors of this series secretly, subliminally send the message that there really is nothing but impulse: that we should cover up the impulse by deferring it, not by finding something more delight-ful. At the end of the day, Mrs. Bear could say to Papa Bear, whose life is a joke, what April Wheeler tells Frank in Richard Yates’ bleak novel Revolutionary Road: he’s not what she’d call a man.
And note of course that when the “spoiled” child becomes an adolescent, she often discovers something like pure Duty in the wasteland of puberty, and turns overnight into a pillar of fire, dedicated perhaps to a dance teacher, or as I was to Shakespeare. Of course, the parents make a joke of this.
But if you teach “deferred gratification”, all you’re teaching is the skills of the hamster: who defers gratification to get into a good school, who gets a status job, and who saves compulsively for a gratifying retirement.
But this can in no sense be assimilated to righteousness.
The fact is that as a spoiled child (where the language of the participle implies an irreversibility) I clamored for treats because there was something missing in my family. My parents had had a large brood unthinkingly because the Church forbade birth control, and because they had so unthinkingly followed the rules, where rule-following isn’t what Kant meant, they were all surprised that within the biggest house, five intelligent, well-fed and well-cared for kids is an ongoing disaster as needs collide.
I wanted Recognition, but was referred to as one of “the boys” and told what it was that I wanted, in fact at various times bribed…paid off. I admired and idealized my father, but from afar: I loved my Mom but she was always too close, and too ready with physical abuse. And, she filled the house with smoke because for adults of her generation, smoking was so universal as to be invisible, and they didn’t see how smoking caused one to defer gratification by being, itself, a toxic gratification. My Mom in other words was preaching DG but not exactly practising it.
It’s taken me many years to get my impulses under some control. But if you’d told me in 1958 that I was the one who needed this, whose lack of impulse control was the only problem worth considering, I’d have sweetly agreed (being pasive-aggressive) and then proceed to sabotage the whole deal.
The New Yorker study of course neglects the possibility that any one of the kids subjected to this crap might be in fact very good at deferred gratification, so good, in fact, that she snarfs sweets in secret.
The fact is that we are either doing our Duty or giving in to impulse: there is no third state: it is a media fantasy that the human persona can literally work for a distant goal without any second-order gratification. The Soul, said Emily Dickinson, seeks Pleasure first.