Columns, Imagine That

A secret about learning how to learn

For many of us, procrastination is a daily struggle. An Internet search produces two million hits offering advice on reducing procrastination. When a friend offered advice on what works for him, I was understandably skeptical.

My friend’s tactic, in a nutshell, works like this: State out loud (or in your head) what you want to be doing, as if you were actually doing it. If you want to stop watching TV and start doing yard work, repeat to yourself, “I am doing yard work. I am doing yard work. I am doing yard work.” It’s the same tactic used by the “Little Engine That Could.” She thought she could, and repeated this mantra until she got up the hill.

This may sound overly simple, but both my friend and the Little Engine were on to something. This technique taps into the basic cognitive principles that govern delayed gratification and self-discipline. For parents, these concepts are important issues to study because of the effects our own actions have on our children.

Michael Mann

Nature and nurture are constantly interacting; the slate is not wiped blank for the next generation.

Nature and nurture are constantly interacting; the slate is not, as was once assumed, wiped blank for the next generation. The burgeoning field of epigenetics shows that environmental experiences leave imprints on our genome that are passed on to our children. In other words, how we learn to alter and improve our own cognitive processes has a profound effect on our kids.

Can we learn to delay gratification?

In his fascinating book The Genius in All of Us, geneticist David Shenk states that desirable personality traits like tenacity and diligence are malleable, not fixed products of our genes. He cites a classic study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, which examined self-discipline in children. In the experiment, four-year-old children were given the option of receiving one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minutes to get two. A third of the children immediately opted for the single marshmallow; a third waited a few minutes but caved in to temptation; a third patiently waited to receive two marshmallows.

When comparing this assessment to test scores taken at 18 years, Mischel found that the children who had waited scored 210 points more than those who opted for instant gratification.

The message that some took from this was that some children are naturally more self-disciplined. However, subsequent research has shown that children can be taught the benefits of delayed gratification. “Every time we learn about which things are teachable,” writes Shenk, “we can improve the way we educate people and make changes on a policy level.”

Shenk offers these tips for parents:

1. Believe. It begins with a simple faith that each child has enormous potential; it is up to us to muster the resources to exploit it. Nobody — children or parents — can be great at anything unless they have a fundamental belief that it is possible. Keep repeating “I am doing yard work” until you believe it enough to do it.

2. Model self-control. Behave as you would want your child to behave. Don’t buy or eat whatever you want, whenever you want it. The more self-control you demonstrate, the more your child will absorb. If your kids see you completing yard work, they will believe that doing chores is a part of life, rather than something to be avoided.

3. Practice. Don’t immediately respond to your child’s every plea. Let them learn to deal with frustration and want. Let them learn how to soothe themselves and discover that things will be all right if they wait for what they want.

The human brain is extremely adaptive, and we can alter our inner monologue to help direct it in ways we want it to go. If we have a hill to get up (or yard work to get done, or a column to write), we must convince ourselves we can do it, and model this behavior for our kids. Imagine that!

Mike Mann is a speaker, trainer, and award-winning storyteller. He is co-founder of the Center for Imagination (www.CenterForImagination.org). His daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!,” recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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