If you’ve been reading here any length of time, then you know that I have an itsy, bitsy, problem with food. I LOVE food. You know that saying, “Don’t live to eat. Eat to live.”? I like to follow that first part. So, I rejoined a group called “Weight Watchers”.
I’ve lost all but about 3 stubborn pounds that just won’t get me to my goal. And while I take responsibility for my actions, I still contend that having a child with autism has made this road especially difficult. Losing weight and keeping it off are the same struggle. Every hour of every day, it goes on for me, partially because of my son’s strange eating habits.
My son will not eat chicken, steak, fish, pasta, salad, veggies (except carrot sticks occasionally). So what does he eat? Here’s the menu:
powered sugar donuts – (halved)
brown sugar and cinnamon pop-tarts (no edges and bite sized)
Doritos (nacho cheese only)1 inch pieces or smaller
McDonald’s cheeseburgers and fries
cheesecake (black & white – equal portions of each in each bite)
chocolate muffins -(bite sized)
chocolate chip cookies (bite sized)
Most fruit and strawberry flavored yogurt
bite sized graham crackers
So, ABA is still running their “new foods” program. What was the first new food they tried? Mini pancakes with butter, syrup and whipped cream which he does not like! And which, in “generalizing” it to me, required me to heat up, smell, cut into pieces, sit next to him and make sure he swallows. (As he does not like it, he will pack it). He has “mastered” this food and now we are slowly moving into healthier fare by trying to get him to eat…bread.
Not only does he “like” just the above, but if the bites are not the right size and shape he will shove it all in and choke or reject the food entirely. He has actually heightened his food proclivities, rejecting french fries that are not of equal length or which have some potato skin on them.
So, while I struggle to eat within my dietary guidelines, I am daily subjected to sheer and utter torture. My ability to abstain through each of my son’s meals should win me some kind of award. Truly. (And don’t you dare say my reward is my health and weight loss – just understand my t-o-r-t-u-r-e!)
So, what with all this dieting and gluttony juxtaposed together, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of gratification and instant gratification versus delayed gratification. What makes us able to resist and what causes us to give in? Is it weakness? Overwhelming desire?
Obviously, some people have health issues that contribute to weight gain or loss. Those are understandable. What about the rest of us? Those of us who have no health issues? How is it that some of us can deal and others can’t?
So, I did what I always do and researched the issue. I found a fascinating article in The New Yorker about self control. It’s really about a Stanford professor of psychology, Walter Mischel (an interesting character) and his views of self control.
In the 1960’s, Mischel conducted a study with a group of children in a preschool setting at Stanford. He placed a tray of marshmallows, cookies and pretzels in front of a child and told them they could pick which they wanted. If they wanted to have it right away, they could have one. If they could wait for the researcher to leave and return to the room, they could have two. If they found they couldn’t wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the child could have still have one. The researcher would then leave and the child was videotaped.
Some ate it without waiting. Some waited. Some said they would wait and ate it while the researcher was out of the room without ringing the bell. The goal of the study was to see what the mental processes were that allowed some to delay gratification while others simply surrendered. What happened in the years following the study was what was interesting. The children who participated were peers of Dr. Mischel’s children. He would ask about these kids, first, casually as dinner conversation, then in further studies. He saw some strong correlative results.
Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
And then it dawned on me:
This is what my son is doing in ABA. Each “program” that is run, (including the new food program) promises a reward once my son completes the task. He “works for” a reward. He delays gratification in order to master a skill. As he learns, he becomes stronger. As Mischel explains it:
Intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
When Mischel first conducted the study, the assumption was that whether the child would wait depended on how badly he/she wanted that goodie. But it became obvious that everyone wanted the treat. The difference was how the kids strategized to divert their attention from the goodie.
“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.”
This skill is called “metacognition” or thinking about thinking. It’s what allows us humans to outsmart our shortcomings. What Mischel found was that this “thinking” problem was something that could be taught. He decided this after some more studies showed that those with lower income had less self control. As the New Yorker put it:
“When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.
But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “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.”
Let’s see how that one works out for me…
It’s just a picture. It’s just a picture. Okay. I’ll have to try harder.
Oh, yeah. Now that’s better.
[For those who don’t know, this is my contribution to Special Needs Ryan Gosling started by Sunday at Adventures in Extreme Parenting. Every Friday, special needs bloggers post a little something to make us smile… click on the button on the sidebar or here to see what everyone else has done this week! ]Food Photo Credit goes to: “Fuck Yeah, Delicious Food!”