Practice of Patience, Illuminated by Kids

The Mind  |  The Tribe   |   Jason Tseng  |   March 6, 2011, 5:50 am

The New Yorker magazine has a very insightful article on psychological studies about kids and self-control (It’s long, but worth a read). It illustrates a lot of different, subtle aspects of Patience. The original 1960s study tempted 4-year old kids with snacks placed right in front of them, where they are rewarded with extra snacks if they were able to wait 15 minutes.

Most kids didn’t last very long, but a small group of kids were able to delay their gratification. And the researcher started correlating Patience with increased possibilities.

“Young kids are pure id,” Mischel says. “They start off unable to wait for anything—whatever they want they need. But then, as I watched my own kids, I marvelled at how they gradually learned how to delay and how that made so many other things possible.”

After further observation, the researcher realized that self-control came from “strategic allocation of attention” and not sheer willpower. The successful kids avoid thinking about the snacks by deliberately placing their attention somewhere else, for example, doing a familiar activity and forgetting about the snacks.

“If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

With that realization, willpower becomes not gritting ones teeth and bearing it, but a skill that practiced and improved.

“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 see that the śamatha (stopping/slowing) aspect of Buddhist meditation has many parallels. During meditation, as one’s scattered thoughts arise, the meditator gently brings his/her attention back to their meditation topic (no matter how fascinating, how emotionally powerful, or how habitual those thoughts are). And for every thought that the meditator doesn’t go toward, but remains on his/her topic is one extra bit of practiced freedom or possibility.

Similarly, when talking about adults, the article cites a similar observation about how self-control benefits us in daily life:

as an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.

Lastly, Mischel noted teaching technique and skills for Patience are not enough:

…it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice.

In fact, I would add that it takes a regular, nearly daily practice, since our habitual patterns of thinking are so strong.

Special Note for education:

Although our education system and by extension our society has been focused on intelligence and knowledge, Mischel concludes that:

“psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control”

And the article ends with a teacher at a charter school, which emphasized developing character.

“I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.”

But meditation and cultivating self-control isn’t just so we can all study better (although it is very important), but it’s to improve the every small moment within our lives. There’s a lot to write on this issue of education.

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