Waiting for Our Marshmallows

I seldom watch TV, but whenever I have recently, it seems I get bombarded with ads cajoling me to take out short term loans. The ads usually portray someone, seemingly not very well-off, who just must have something (appliance, laptop, building renovation or repair) immediately. No doubt the targeted customers have little economic literacy and don’t understand the dangers of borrowing at high interest rates. Nevertheless, the consumers are encouraged to believe that if they want something it can and must be acquired immediately.

In the supermarket we see a similar phenomenon. Typically we will see a mother with a small child sitting in the shopping trolley. As they go past the confectionery aisle the child will point to something that it wants. Mum, trying to be a good mother, temporarily resists. She explains how the treat is full of sugar which is not good for the child. She rationalises with the infant that if the treat was eaten now the child would not eat dinner. (It is amazing how parents try to reason with children that are too young to have the capacity to do so!) The child increases the volume and urgency of the demand such that half the people in the shop are now aware that the child is being mercilessly denied of a treat! Finally, in order to quell the disapproving stares and admonishing frowns, the mother meekly acquiesces and provides the child the demanded treat. But it is not enough that the child has won this unequal battle of wills, it immediately tears open the packet and begins to consume the item. There is no thought of waiting. It must be partaken of right now!

It bears thinking about this little drama. A child too young to be reasonable but old enough to know how to get its way, has been allowed to assert instant gratification. We can only wonder what impact this will have on its later life.

Most of you would be aware of the classical study conducted on children trying to assess the effect of delayed gratification. Researchers had children sit behind a desk. A researcher present then placed a marshmallow on each desk and then told the children he had to leave for a while. Before absenting himself he told the children that they were welcome to eat the marshmallow on their desk if they wished. But, he said, if when he returned the child had not eaten the marshmallow they would be given an additional marshmallow as a reward. The lives of these children were then followed for some decades after. It was apparent that those who had been able to resist the temptation of eating the original marshmallow were more successful on many dimensions in their later lives.

Whether it is as a result of our parenting practices or other social influences it seems to me that there are fewer and fewer of us that are prepared to delay gratification. A good indication of this is the fact that private debt is now at record highs in Australia. Along with the short term lenders I began this piece with, banks have created more than their share of such debt through credit cards.

Now, used properly, credit cards are a great convenience. But they offer great temptation to those who are unable to delay gratification. A young intellectually disabled woman I know got into some financial difficulties by paying her phone bill with her credit card, and then only paying the minimum required payment off her card bill each month. She soon had an outstanding credit card debt at exploitative interest rates that was beyond her capacity to service. This unfortunate outcome, it must be said was not only due to her inability to curtail her phone usage but also to the unethical practice of the bank in issuing her with a credit card in the first place.

Importantly, not only do we as individuals have the inability to delay gratification, collectively we seem to be even worse. There is plenty of evidence of this if we look at a few of the major government interventions in recent years.

Here for a start are three notable examples:

  1. The National Disability Insurance Scheme

This is in many ways an admirable project, designed to ensure that those with disabilities are given appropriate and adequate support. But it is a hugely expensive and open-ended commitment, unaffordable in our current budgetary situation and as a result the brunt of which costs will be passed on to future generations.

  1. The National Broadband Network

Again the NBN is theoretically a boon to Australian businesses and households. But it is fated to go down as one of Australia’s most ill-conceived and poorly delivered projects. It will cost us far more than was ever envisaged and deliver far less than was promised to consumers and will inevitably be soon overtaken by enhanced technology. Again its cost is well beyond our current capacity to pay and the costs will be shifted on to future generations.

  1. The Gonski Education Reforms

Here was a huge commitment to funding education. The money spent so far has been poorly targeted and has largely appeased state governments and teachers unions  with little impact on educational outcomes. Once more, it is beyond our current capacity to fund and will add to government indebtedness.


Now each of these initiatives is trying to address current community issues and ideally if implemented well would positively enhance our society. But right now, ignoring the botched implementation, we can’t afford them. We act like that child being wheeled up the confectionery aisle, grabbing this and that, attempting to get immediate gratification. In our haste to get our “sugar hit” we rush to do something ill-conceived and unduly expensive.

Our democracies have been beset with these difficulties in multitudinous ways.

A century ago individuals felt a duty to the wider society. It was such a sense of duty that compelled men to sign up in their tens of thousands for military service ready to sacrifice their lives for “king and country”. Even though democracy was famously defined by Abraham Lincoln as a form of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in recent times it has morphed into a form of government where many have put aside any ambition to pursue the common good but to pursue the particular benefits it might offer them as individuals. And let there be no waiting! Just like those impulsive buyers running up their credit card debts, we want everything now and leave the debts for our children to pay.

The thoughtless impulsivity that denies us of a second marshmallow can have far-reaching and disastrous results. There is a famous quote attributed to American writer, David Foster Wallace, “Act in haste; repent at leisure.” This sentiment seems particularly appropriate here.

Perhaps it should be mandatory for Wallace’s words to be written on the door of every tattoo parlour!

There are many examples I could give where people should be counselled to “look before they leap” rather than rashly following their impulses. One of the more tragic is those seeking gender-reassignment surgery.  By any measure such surgery is radical, requiring the removal of the genitalia, (and sometimes for women their breasts) to be replaced by a reconstructed version of the genitalia of the opposite sex. Recent research shows that growing numbers of people are making a decision to undergo such traumatic reconstruction at an earlier age and then later wishing to revert to their original biological gender. Now I will not labour again the folly of suggesting that gender is not biologically determined and the tragic outcomes that often result from such a belief. But these confused human beings are putting themselves through great trauma by making such precipitate decisions egged on by the LGBTQI activists without giving appropriate regard to the consequences.

It seems to be true that the desire for instant gratification is increasing in younger generations. We should give pause to wonder why that might be the case.

Our parents, grandparents or great grandparents (depending on your age) lived through periods of relative deprivation. They had to contend with two World Wars and the Great Depression. Now these resilient folk learnt to live frugally. They made their own clothes, darned their socks, grew their own fruit and vegetables, in order to eke out a living in a struggling economy. Compared with today’s society few owned cars. Whilst many came to own their own homes, they did so only late in life after paying off bank loans at historically low interest rates. (I read an article recently where a young left wing commentator argued that everyone should have the right to own a house. Well everyone does have such a right provided they can pay for it! I don’t believe that was what she had in mind.)

As economic conditions improved, parents naturally didn’t want their own children to suffer the privations they had to endure. This tendency was exaggerated by the self-esteem movement. The baby boomers came to believe that their children had to be made to feel special. Helicopter parenting came into vogue and following widespread availability of contraception families became smaller and thus sibling competition was reduced. The typical family contained only one or two children and material advances made it easy to dote on them. There seemed no need to wait, no need to delay gratification. More and more children got what they wanted and when they wanted it. Children’s faults were glossed over by adulatory parents whose prime motivation was to make their children feel good about themselves. Every child was a winner. Every child got a trophy.

[Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level found that in North America in the 1950’s only 12% of young adults agreed with the statement “I’m a very special person.” Today 80% do, when in fact we are all becoming more and more alike. The good Dr Phil tells us, rightly, that nobody is special. And in an environment when everyone thinks they are special it is truly difficult for anyone to be special!]

With parents providing less and less guidance for their children, the child’s sense of identity became more and more dependent on meeting the expectations of their peers whose opinions became increasingly insidious and demanding with the development of social media. This has made our children vulnerable in ways previous generations would have found impossible to imagine.

While none of us wish ill for our children the above approach seems to me to be making them more vulnerable. It is worth remembering this quote of M Scott Peck from his book The Road Less Travelled.

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

The parenting style outlined above encourages children to believe that life is not difficult. There will surely be a time in their lives when they have to confront that fact and without the proper foundations they well might flounder.  Sooner or later they will come to realise, despite what their parents might have encouraged them to believe, they are not particularly special. Eventually they will also encounter impediments that will prevent them from getting what they want, when they want it. Teaching them to delay gratification will help them live better with the difficulties that real life presents us with.

It is more than time for our society to learn to delay instant gratification and wait for the second marshmallow. I am sure that if we learnt that lesson, we as individuals would benefit and collectively our liberal democracy would also be enhanced. You see, being able to defer gratification increases our resilience. Increasing our resilience enhances our courage. And without courage we can never have true freedom.

2 Replies to “Waiting for Our Marshmallows”

  1. Ted I agree with the main tenet of this essay. My view is that frugality is a learned experience born and nurtured by environmental issues, in the main economic. You referred to our parents/grandparents experiences. I suspect Ted that we have a common economic history so if we examine it- with grandparents being children in the world depression of 1893 and after coming to Australia saw 6 recessions in their lifetime- Great War, Great Depression, 1952 probably a result of the Korean War, 1961 credit squeeze, 1974, 1981; parents born in the Great War and who also saw 6 recessions including 1990. I started work in the credit squeeze of 1961 and so far have suffered 5 recessions if we include 2008. Our children however have only seen 4 and grandchildren , now leaving teenage years, none that they can remember. So whilst frugality, more likely seen as individual resilience to the deprivations of recession, was a strong influence in our formative years, its effects have been tempered over time to a large extent by a common desire that our children should be better off than we were. So as the shackles of frugality have been weakened by us and our children, it is no wonder that todays youngest seek instant gratification. I agree with your thesis that environmental issues of economic reality create an individual’s world view that collectively drives economic decisions which may or may not be to our overall long term economic benefit.

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