Parenting  •  May 16, 2009

Kids with Self-control Will Lead a Successful Yet Predictable Life

According to the recent article in New Yorker, the kids who can delay their gratification are more likely to succeed later in life. What troubles me about this type of research is that they all have a bias towards measurable qualities. Now, you might ask, “Duh, why would you conduct a research on something that’s not measurable?” True, “research” by definition would have to be about things that are measurable. That in and of itself does not bother me. What troubles me is the fact that the conclusions of these studies often assume that the measurable qualities are superior to the immeasurable ones, and they end up recommending you to pay more attention to the former at the expense of the latter.

As parents, we all try to do the best we can for our children, but our motives behind these efforts are often not so selfless. Naturally, we all have egos, and we all want our children to be better than others. Our egotistical desires push our children to succeed in measurable things because our egos cannot get satisfaction from immeasurable or intangible things. In this New Yorker article, one of the test subjects who successfully delayed her gratification four decades ago said: “They set up a little tent where they tested my oldest daughter on the delay task with some cookies. I remember thinking, I really hope she can wait.” In this manner, we are preoccupied with the measurable qualities of our children, and how they stack up, such as grades, test scores, awards, school ranking, SAT, IQ, etc.. Meanwhile, little or no attention is paid to the immeasurable or intangible qualities of our children, because those things do not reward our own egos as parents. This is what I mean by bias towards measurable things.

These research results have normative effects. They set a moral standard in our culture by which we are all judged. Those who do not question these implicit standards may succeed in life, but only in a rather predictable manner. The test subject mentioned above, Carolyn Weisz, got her Ph.D. from Princeton, and is now on track to become a professor. I couldn’t think of a more predictable result for a little girl with a high degree of self-control. And, we can also predict much about her future too. Her brother, on the other hand, miserably failed the delayed gratification test when he was a little boy, and now is working in the entertainment business. Who knows what he’ll be doing 10 years from now. The implicit hierarchy in the article is that Carolyn succeeded and her brother failed; therefore the ability to delay gratification is a superior quality that every child should strive for. This is where I beg to differ.

My father apparently was opposed to this view too. When I was in eighth grade, he told me that I probably would never be successful because I plan everything ahead of time. He explained to me that people who think ahead and try to control their own fate, do not become successful because, by trying to control their future, they are effectively closing the doors to unexpected opportunities. Exceptionally successful people often just dive into the water and then figure out how to swim later. Well, my father was right. Despite my attempt to let myself go, my natural inclination to control every situation won out in the end. I have become relatively successful, but not in any exceptional way.

I went to art school here in New York and studied fine arts. When I think of my college friends, it is pretty clear that most of them would have failed this delayed gratification test. I’m not sure how well I would have done on the test, but I’m pretty sure that I would have performed better than my artist friends. I was never particularly good at making art. It was clear even then that others were more talented than I was. My art was rather predictable, and lacked the emotional depths and the intangible qualities, because I controlled every minute aspect of it. Some of my friends have become quite successful in the art world and most them have impulsive personalities. They give into their impulses first, and then think about what it means later. I believe this is a critical quality to be a great artist. The New Yorker article makes it sound as though those with self-control can just let themselves go if they choose to, but this is not true. Letting yourself go is actually harder than learning to develop self-control. I miserably failed in that department.

Those with self-control can achieve a moderate amount of success, but there is only so much that self-control can offer in the way of success. To achieve something exceptional, we need a great deal of luck, but when we try so hard to control everything, we close ourselves to getting lucky. Those without self-control could end up becoming junkies but they could achieve something exceptional also. As parents, it is tempting to control everything that can be controlled about our children, but by doing so, we are reducing the possibility for them to achieve something exceptional. After all, the point of controlling anything is to achieve something predictable.

Our ultimate egotistical dream is to turn our children into our own artworks on which we put our signatures once they are complete and successful. To achieve this, we need to be able to see the tangible effects of our efforts. That is, we need to be able to prove that their success was due to our own good ideas and hard work. The effects need to be measurable. This is why, again, we as parents are seduced to these measurable qualities. If we truly cared about our own children, not about our own egos, we need to be able to let ourselves go, and stop getting preoccupied with these measurable qualities, and respect and enjoy the immeasurable and intangible qualities of our children for which we can never claim any ownership or credit.