On Waiting. Or WHERE’S MY MARSHMALLOW?

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After Gbot and I stopped at the third home-improvement store in two days, in search of proper track lighting, proper bulbs, an adequate fan, and a dimmer switch in the right size plate in the right color (the less off- of two off-whites), I was waiting in line at the Starbucks.  I deserved, I thought, something I had not made myself. I was pleased to see there were four cars ahead of me, because of the new gift I’m giving myself, the time to read. I reached across to the passenger seat where my copy of Pamela Druckerman‘s Bringing Up Bebe was optimistically waiting.

Last night, I got to the part in the book about waiting. That is, making your child wait. Not too long. Just long enough to begin to teach him how to deal with small frustrations. The theory is, if he learns to self-distract, if he learns patience, he will be happier and more successful in dealing with the old frustrting world which certainly, on a daily basis, makes you wait. Having a child wait also has the happy effect of keeping the constant requests that ricochet off a mother’s skull fourteen hours a day from actually penetrating bone and causing the gray matter to dribble out onto your blouse. “Attend,” the French mothers simply say. “Wait.” And, astoundingly, the demand is met, according to Druckerman, with actual waiting.

I thought I’d been effectively saying Wait. But in the past few days, we’ve been practicing more. I have said it twenty times today, in situations ranging from “I want a drink of water” to “I need a pencil.”

Needless to say, in the past sixty “waits,” I’ve become acutely aware of how immediately my children want things, all the time.

As I was waiting in the drive-through, reading as fast as I could, I remembered the famous marshmallow test of the sixties–and then, several paragraphs down, Druckerman brought it up. She not only discusses it, but she goes to the source–one reason I am enjoying this book so much. She meets the man behind the marshmallows, Walter Mischel who invented the famous marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test isn’t a way to choose the best filling for your s’more–it was a longterm study on how the ability to delay gratification in childhood relates directly to an adult’s longterm success in school and a career.

Briefly, the marshmallow test involved watching on hidden cameras a child left alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow on it. The child has been told that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow right away, he’ll get another soon (in fifteen minutes). Then the child is left alone in the room. Just he and his impulses and the marshmallow. Seventy percent of the time, the results were the same as when Walter the Farting Dog (not, apparently, named after Walter Mischel), was left in the cruise ship’s hold with the cheese. (Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise.) (Walter eats the whole cheese.) The children who didn’t eat the marshmallow–who waited and got two–proved to be more successful in school, have significantly higher SAT scores, and feel more fulfilled in their careers later in life.

The marshmallow test revealed not only that the children with self control would learn to fare better in the world, but how they did it. They weren’t just better at being patient–merely sitting quietly with their hands folded–but at–lo and behold–distracting themselves while they waited.

After waiting in the drive-through for nearly ten minutes, I got my coffee, and I got a reading fix. (I was distracting myself from waiting for my coffee by reading.) Gbot and I returned home with our bounty of electrical gadgets, and the electrician announced we would have to wait ’til Monday for him to finish the job. No lights in the bedrooms for four days. Waiting. It’s for everyone.

But I have too many things to do to let lightless bedrooms faze me. And–not married until thirty-nine–I’ve got a lot of years of practice under my belt.

For the bots, this waiting thing hasn’t been easy. As I type, Mbot is slouched in a chair looking at The Tortoise and the Jackrabbit, by Susan Lowell. He doesn’t want to be looking at the book, or sitting in the chair. Husbot has told him that it’s time to sit quietly in the chair with a book. The moment Husbot leaves the room, Mbot slides off the chair, his feet touching the ground, and makes eye contact with me over the edge of the book. He points to the sofa. His mouth quivers. Tears begin to fall. “Mama,” he wails.

Husbot returns. “You’re old enough to practice sitting in the chair,” he says. Tears. More “Mamas.” It is uncomfortable being me right now because my heart has migrated across the room and is in that chair while the rest of my body perches, feeling heartless, on my own chair. “I’m just waiting and wating,” wails Mbot. “I really just wanted to hug Mama…”

I know this is best. I know he must learn to distract himself. I know it is harder for Mbot to learn this than for many children–Gbot, for example. I don’t trust myself that I know the best way to teach him this. But surely practice cannot hurt.

“I want to get out of this place.” Pause. “Mama.” Pause. Big gulp of air with the hint of a yawn. “Mommy, mommy.”

He never calls me Mommy.

“Malcolm, that’s enough,” says Husbot, striding in. “I want you to sit still and read your book.”

“I don’t want to read my book….” Wail, wail, wail, sniffle, bawl, gulp, cry. How many sounds there are for self-pity. The wind chimes clong and gong from outside the screen door. The wailing stops. The soothing tones have changed the subject, at least for several seconds.

“No, I wanted to hug Mama. I’ve been sitting here for these many minutes…I want to go…”

I remember again the clock my sister recently bought for her twins. Not just any clock: the Time Timer:

This model is suggested for children with autism or ADHD. A list of various models can be found on Friendship Circle Blog.

I order it. Husbot leaves the room. Mbot sits quietly for several minutes. “Can I come out now?” he asks.

Husbot lets him, telling him he’s been a good bear, telling him he’s old enough to learn to read quietly for thirty minutes while Mom works.

And I’m thinking this is working only because Husbot and I are working together and Gbot’s got the croup and is in the bedroom lying down. I have found it impossible to enforce a quiet reading time while running interference between the bots.

But it is rewarding to see that Mbot can do it–can sit in a chair with a book for thirty minutes, even if it’s thirty whining, wailing minutes. It’s a start. We will work on it. I will wait.

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4 thoughts on “On Waiting. Or WHERE’S MY MARSHMALLOW?

  1. Are you or will you do any of the explicit teaching of mental techniques? I guess you’re mostly just saying “read the book!!” but regarding the marshmallow test they said:

    “But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.””

    • I have, from the beginning, tried such tricks–bot’s had little patience with them. He seems to focus on the attention–the interaction between us–rather than the subject at hand. I’m hoping that as he grows older that they’ll be more effective.

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