“Little Wyatt, if you want your another piece of your candy from Halloween, you have to clean your room first.”
It’s a common command. Children are taught to delay gratification from the bassinet and stroller and onward to school. Learning self-control and how to defer pleasure is essential to becoming an adult human being capable of making responsible decisions that enhance quality of life and ensure survival. Some of our oldest fables and folk stories demonstrate the same principle from the hard plodding tortoise that knows he cannot rest until the job is done and thus beats the hare at a race, to the three little pigs where the one that knows to do the hard work and build his house out of brick doesn’t end up pork tenderloin for a hungry wolf. Of course it’s hardly kosher these days to scare children with stories of pigs being eaten by wolves is it? And how does Little Red Riding Hood fare?
In fact not only are we less likely to tell children cautionary tales of what happens to the selfish, lazy, greedy, and irresponsible, we, collectively as parents, are less likely to teach our children to be anything but greedy, selfish, lazy, and irresponsible anymore. Out the window went spankings and consequences, and while I’m happy to find an alternative to physical violence as a parental disciplinary option if you can show me a better happier way, I’m terribly loath to go the way I have seen this nation tumble towards. Television sets are baby sitters that teach mass consumption. Lack of public approval for discipling children has either led to screaming harpies that don’t care how they are perceived in public or the greater majority of well-meaning parents that hand that children whatever it is they are crying for as soon as they are crying, just to stop the socially embarrassing moment of a child making a scene in public.
Rewards are handed out as incentives for self-expression rather than self-discipline and we’re all lauding the freedom we experience as our entire nation, as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, grows ever younger and more immature. Our entire financial institution is now centered around the principle of enjoy now, pay later (or at least have someone else bail you out). Don’t defer. Get a credit card. Credit cards getting a bad rap? Well now you can use layaway at some of the major stores just to be sure you can get what you want now and worry about the consequences later. No matter than you’re now paying much more for it than you should be because all the added interest and fees. Can anyone remember far back into the dark ages when you know, if you had no money in your account, your card wouldn’t let you have any, or wow, your check would bounce? Now instead it lets you go on blithely spending and slams you with fees later – because, of course, you gotta have it now. We have all sunk deep and deeper into a quicksand of instant gratification.
Of course it would be easy to say: don’t use credit, save, only buy what you can afford – except that the whole crazy system of instant gratification has had the domino effect of creating massive inflation (yes, I know there are complex issues and myriad causes, but it is one of those causes). How many years would it take to save for a house, when of course when we are young and raising a family is exactly when we need one? Rising health care costs and the wonderful fraud of insurance of course accounts for huge chunk of change making it impossible to get what we need without credit.
Every where you choose to cast your eye in regards to our culture the cult of childish instant gratification has left its indelible print of banality, self-centeredness, and immaturity: music, art, relationships, media, and our economy. Is there a way, I wonder, to reverse that trend or are we doomed like Benjamin Button to fade into black unable to remember our own name?