Friday, December 05, 2014


This is not really about marshmallows -- it’s about kids.  I’m drawing on a lecture by Laurence Steinberg, whose book “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence” is hot right now.  I’ll put the link to one of his lectures at the bottom of this post.  In the meantime, you need to know about an experiment with little kids.  The small child was put at a table with a marshmallow in front of him and told that if he could sit there for ten minutes without eating that marshmallow, he could have two.  Then the adult left to watch through a one-way mirror.  Some kids just ate it right away.  Some waited but not long enough, and some did the job.  

Years passed.  The same kids were looked at again to see how they were coming along.  Those who could wait had done a LOT better than those who just ate the marshmallow.  There was nothing about a kid who had learned that if he didn’t take what was offered as soon as it was offered, it might disappear -- maybe through adult trickery or maybe because the adult would return and eat the marshmallow themselves -- nor were there any instances of the kid just throwing the marshmallow at the wall to remove the temptation.  Maybe throwing it on the floor and squashing it to scorn the whole idea of bribery.  So it was not a very sophisticated experiment, nor very -- um -- “literary” since there were so few narrative options.  And then there's the Martha Stewart angle: no marshmallow is worthy unless it is hand-made by experts.

Marshmallow handmade by Martha Stewart

Steinberg does better than that in some ways.  He says the four criteria for “success” in life (which I assume he defines as a secure and prosperous no-trouble life) are to graduate from high school, not to have children until marriage (as late as is possible), to never quit a job without lining up another one first, and not to break laws.  In short, to conform to expectations.  He also notes that merely starting college won’t be much of a help in getting a job, and anyway one-third of students drop out, presumably because they have no grit.  (Also, no money and mounting debt.)  Maybe no high school foundation for college level learning.  There is no mention of race.

Steinberg tears down high school to the ground.  He says other countries do FAR better, that high school in America is boring, repetitious, far too easy, and merely a sort of social club with a lot of extra-curricular sex and violence  because the schools are too prudish and chicken to take on “hot” topics with kids who are the size of adults.  The appetite for risk, exploration, novelty, the rush of learning new things is either limited to a lucky few (the football team IF they go to state) or maybe displaced to computers and social websites.  No thought of service to others.  It is separated from real learning, the opportunity to learn about social macros like poverty, ecological differences, foreign languages, war, politics, economics, and the other true dynamics of adult life.  The humanities are considered frills (Didn’t we settle that back in the Sixties?) and phys ed is unnecessary.  (Steinberg considers “mindfulness”, the management of one’s mind and emotions through yoga and so on, an important part of phys ed.  I agree.)  There is little about household management, esp. assets.

Like other aspects of great opportunity, the adolescent openness to risk and novelty -- supported by neurosystems still plastic and intense -- present many dangers.  The peak age for the onset of mental dysfunction is 14.  You are most likely to go crazy after you are ten, or before you are 25.  The peak age for accidents, but particularly drowning, is about the same.  Adolescents overreach, misjudge.  

These are mammal facts, true of animals that have adolescence -- which they all do.  They all are more easily addicted during that period, which means addiction is a matter of exposure rather than moral turpitude.  Having raised foxes, bobcats, and badgers as well as cats and dogs through their adolescence, I’ve seen their drive for more independence, which has evolved to take them to new territory instead of attaching them to the parental context.  They leave.  If they are prevented, the "wild" become hostile. Most domestic animals get in line.

Animals, even humans, are perhaps most lovable between the age when they can hold a crayon and when puberty begins.  Puberty is not the same as adolescence, but it is the kick-off shift that the adrenals fire up, part of which is prompting ovaries to release eggs.  We are aware that this is happening sooner than it did before, down to ages 7 and 8, before a female body is able -- even large enough -- to support a baby to a healthy outcome, before a uterus is fully developed.  14, the previously usual onset, is in a female an age at which they are nearly full-grown.  Also, adolescence at the older end is extended, but mostly because of economic and educational reasons.  

The three reasons suggested for early onset of adolescence are obesity (because fat is active, making hormones), environmental chemicals that disrupt sexual hormones, and artificial light.  Some go out of their way to specify light from computer or television screens.  All three of these are “associated” but no causal links are established -- only suggested.

Adolescents caught in war have shortened lives, but Steinberg says nothing about how it affects neural plasticity.  He DOES suggest that hypothalmic pituitary/adrenal relationship has something to do with it.  When I googled, I got   “Relational victimization, friendship, and adolescents’ hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis responses to an in vivo social stressor.”  As nearly as I can tell at a superficial glance, it is about how adolescents turn to each other for help and advice.  (See “Lisa Bright and Dark” for a vivid example.)  We’re well aware of this dynamic, the clustering of adolescents into sort of proto-families for reassurance and ideas.  If a high schooler has NO support group, or is ostracized, life can be terrifying.   But I don’t see stress or outright fear on the list of triggers for early onset puberty, despite the link to adrenaline.

Everyone reflects on their own adolescence.  Mine was indeed a time of enormous stress -- enough to rage at home but not at school.  (We expected an atomic bomb momentarily.)  Once I found the dramatics department, that was my refuge.  But looking back I’m astounded at how terrified I was of having low grades, how driven I was to stay safe by achieving without any clear idea of how to do it.  That’s probably been the through-line of my life.  I still pressure myself to turn out blog post essays (as thought still in school), but not to do housework or yardwork.  Most people here are wired in the opposite way: protecting the image of their home but trying not to be too flashy or a show-off, too "smart."

When it comes to the marshmallow test, I am full of grit.  I stay rigidly on my diabetes diet.  I throw the marshmallow against the wall.  Who are outsiders to judge, to decide whether I am a worthy human being, to grade my worthiness by how many minutes I can sit in a small room alone in front of sugar fluff.  Conformity is not grit.  Success is not conformity.  Grit is often about tolerating difference.  Success is often about being original.  Mental plasticity I can appreciate, but I don’t think marshmallows tell us much about plasticity.  They are merely sweet and squishy.

prize-winning "cute" cupcakes

Then watch this vid about Leonard Creo, who says, "If you can do puberty, you can do old age."

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