There are two things that parents of small children can’t stand. One is a child making noise when we’re trying to get work done. The other is a child making no noise at all.
Because if they’re not making noise, they’re usually getting into trouble.
So consider this scenario: you run to see what your too-quiet two year old has gotten into and find him playing with the snow-globe your sister brought back from her trip to Switzerland last year. Since this is not the best toy for a toddler, you smile at your child and gently take the snow-globe out of his hands.
That’s when the screaming begins.
What do you do? Do you endure the shrieking child or give back the snow-globe?
If you’re normal, your thinking probably works its way through the following steps: 1) He can’t really hurt himself with the snow-globe. 2) He probably won’t break the snow-globe. 3) I never really liked the snow-globe anyway. 4) If he does break it, it’s no big deal to clean it up. 5) So is it really worth making him miserable by taking it away?
But we’re not really worried about the child’s misery, are we? We’re more concerned about ourselves.
In the end, the odds are pretty good you’re going to let the toddler keep the snow-globe.
But the real issue isn’t the snow-globe; it’s the lesson you’ve just taught your child.
Why did you take the snow-globe away in the first place? Because it wasn’t a suitable plaything for a child. By doing so, you taught little Johnny that some things are bad for him and therefore off limits.
By giving it back to him, you teach him that if he makes enough of a fuss, he can get whatever he wants, even if it’s bad for him. Better to let him keep the snow-globe in the first place, despite missing the opportunity to teach him limits.
It’s entirely normal for little children to cry when they don’t get what they want. But when they always get what they want by crying, they never learn how to take no for an answer. A few years down the line, you have a teenager who has always gotten what he wanted by throwing a fit, and a few years later you have an adult with the same temper.
And you thought you had problems with an unruly two-year-old.
CHILDREN OF ALL AGES
The error we make is not properly evaluating the difference between short-term pain and long-term pain. Long term pain is almost always worse. But short term pain is now.
In many contexts, we all have a natural appreciation of this principle. We get an education now so we can have a career later. We get up and go to work now so we can afford to pay our bills later. We go to the doctor to check out suspicious symptoms even though we’d rather ignore them, and we go to the dentist for cleanings even though she might discover a cavity. We go to the gym to sweat and strain because we understand the rule of no pain, no gain.
But when it comes to the many gray areas of daily living, we become children again and the rule flies out the window. It’s just not fair: if we have to endure the unpleasant realities of life in school and work and personal health, shouldn’t life conform to our wishes the rest of the time?
Two friends were walking through town when they were caught in a sudden thundershower.
“Quick,” said first, “open up your umbrella.”
“It won’t do any good,” said the second. “My umbrella is full of holes.”
“So why in the world did you bring it with you?”
“I didn’t think it was going to rain!”
Reality doesn’t change to accommodate us, and our failure to plan for the future won’t make the future sympathetic when it arrives. Neither will our good intentions lead to success if we don’t prepare for whatever might be and not just for what we hope will be.
THE CALCULUS OF AVOIDANCE
Shahzeen Attari, a professor at Indiana University, surveyed over a thousand subjects to determine how Americans believe they can best conserve water. What she found was that about 43 percent thought that shorter showers and turning off the tap while brushing their teeth would produce the greatest savings. In fact, the greatest reduction in water use comes from switching to high-efficiency appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, and toilets.
After interviewing Professor Attari, NPRs Shankar Vedantam proposed the somewhat obvious explanation that people resist the high-efficiency solutions because of the initial expense. Even though they stand to recoup their investment over time and save money in the long run – not to mention conserving water at the same time — the short-term outlay overrides the long-term benefits.
Then they rationalize their decision by convincing themselves they are addressing the problem by saving water in the shower and while brushing their teeth (even though one has nothing to do with the other, and they could easily be doing both).
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
This offers several insights into how we can fool ourselves into making better decisions. Psychologically, I’m much more willing to give up a little at a time than all at once. That’s why people pay finance charges rather than paying cash and why there are layaway plans for future purchases. It’s also why the government may subsidize eco-friendly products while imposing punitive taxes or bans on products it believes are not in the public interest.
But we really don’t need the government to do the job for us. If we know what’s in our own best interest, we can trick ourselves into doing the right thing through various kinds of self-manipulation.
Increase the penalty. Oh, that evil snooze button, the device that may eventually be blamed for the fall of Western Civilization. Just nine more minutes; just another nine minutes; just one more nine-minute nap. And before you know it, you’re flying out the door late wearing a mismatched outfit with your hair uncombed and without breakfast or coffee. It wasn’t worth the extra dozing when you did it yesterday, but you’ve done it again today.
A self-imposed fine can be a powerful incentive to get up. Drop a quarter in a jar for every time you hit the snooze button. When it reaches ten dollars, give it to charity. Or add to that a competition with a similarly time-challenged friend or colleague. The first one to ten dollars takes the other one out to lunch. Then start over again.
The very act of paying for oversleeping might cure you faster than you think.
Increase the reward. You want a new thousand-dollar computer, but even the $700 model is a stretch for your budget. So find something small you can do without. (Do you really need that donut, another lunch out, or one more vente-frothy-latte-whatever-accino?) Every time you pass up one of those trivial little pleasures, drop the money you didn’t spend in a jar and wait for it to add up. When you reach $700, take the money and add $300 to get the model you really want.
What if you’re not in the market for a new computer? Then use the money to bribe yourself with a fancy dinner out each time you make it a month without caving.
Take the challenge. This is really just another version of the first two. Want to stop smoking (or drinking, or gossiping, or having an extra dessert)? Find a friend who also wants to kick the habit and put up $100 each — or more, if you need more incentive. First one to give in pays the other.
Become an analyst. Lists of pros and cons are hard to argue with. When you have trouble getting yourself to do the right thing, writing out the reasons for and against may produce such a lopsided result that you’ll be too embarrassed with yourself if you don’t to concede to logic without further waffling.
Become a philosopher. Tempted to take the low road? Ask yourself any or all of the following questions: What if I were in the other person’s shoes? What would make my mother proud? What do I want my son to think of me? What if I ended up going viral on YouTube? How good will I feel about myself?
We have more control over our actions than we think we do. With a little thought, creativity, and self-discipline, we can turn our fear of short-term pain into long-term happiness.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. Request the first four chapters of his new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages at this link for free or order now on Amazon.