Marshmallows & muscles

The Power of Stories Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

A boy asked his mother for a third slice of cake. “No,” she answered. “Please, Mom, just one more piece.” Again, his mother said no. The boy didn’t give up: “Please? Just one, I promise.”

Finally, the mother gave in. “OK, but that’s it. No more!” The boy grinned. “Honestly, Mom! You have no self-control.”

In the famous 1972 Stanford marshmallow experiment, individual children were seated in front of a single marshmallow and told they could eat it whenever they chose.

Or, they could get two if they waited until the researcher returned. As expected, most of the children tried to wait but eventually ate the treat.

While one follow-up study erroneously concluded childhood self-control is predictive of later life success, every other related study to date has proven self-control is a learnable skill, not an inborn trait.

Brain science concurs. Behavior patterns are shaped primarily by neural pathways connecting competing brain centers for learning, memory, instinct, emotions, and reasoning.

The more repetitive a behavior, the more its specific pathway becomes myelinated, and the more rapid and automatic the behavior. By definition, self-control neural pathways connect brain centers in ways that foster thoughtful free-will decision-making unrestricted by other forces, inner or external.

The more those pathways are used, the more self-control becomes natural. Ultimately, self-control is about freedom.

Millennia before the revelations of marshmallows and myelin, the notion of self-control was already evident in the Torah. In Genesis, humans were created with free will, the ability to make choices and thereby determine personal character and destiny.

But as the Torah’s early stories reveal, choices were more often reflexive or emotional rather than thoughtful.

Generations later came the Exodus. Not just a physical liberation from slavery under Pharaoh, Exodus symbolized the repudiation of enslavement of any kind: peer pressure, expectations, impulses, feelings. The best choices would rely on free-will decision-making.

Shortly thereafter came the Revelation at Sinai. There, the Jewish people received the mitzvot (commandments), a framework for making choices.

Mitzvot are essentially a system of daily training exercises designed to forge the neural pathways for self-control.

Mitzvot are also tacit acknowledgements that self-control is learned and therefore achievable by everyone.

Self-control has been described as rational choice for transcendent values, an insight evident in the following stories.

Integrity. The talmudic sage Shimon ben Shetach made his living working with linen. To make his life easier, his students purchased a donkey from an Arab in the marketplace. As he thanked his students, ben Shetach spied a small pouch tied around the animal’s neck. Inside was a valuable pearl.

His students were thrilled at their teacher’s unexpected good fortune, but ben Shetach told them to return it: “You purchased a donkey, not a pearl.”

His students disagreed. “According to the law we don’t need to return it since the pearl was attached to the animal when we bought it.”

Ben Shetach countered, “Of what use is my learning if I don’t act in the right way?” The rabbi located the merchant and returned the pearl. The Arab was so shocked all he could say was, “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach.”

Commitment. For Louis Brandeis, life at Harvard Law School was challenging. Daily he was pestered by fellow students encouraging him to discard his Judaism. He could have an extraordinary legal career, they’d say, even become a Supreme Court justice if not for his Judaism. Brandeis listened but said nothing.

By his final year of law school, Brandeis’ preeminence was undisputable. He was invited — the first Jew ever — to join the school’s honor society. At his induction, Brandeis approached the lectern, paused, and said, “I am sorry that I was born a Jew.”

The room erupted into applause and cheers. When the room quieted, Brandeis began again. “I am sorry that I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”

For a long moment there was stunned silence. And then, awed by Brandeis’ conviction and unequivocal choice, the members of the exclusive Harvard honor society gave the honoree a standing ovation.

Empowerment. In danger of being tossed out of yeshiva, a student approached his advisor. “I really want to stay here, but I can’t seem to keep the rules. It’s like there’s someone inside pushing me to do things I know I shouldn’t do.” The advisor responded, “Work on your knuckle-cracking habit. Even the small act of stopping yourself from doing something you want to do will give your soul the feeling of what it’s like to exercise self-control. And then you’ll experience a different sort of self-empowerment, not the type that says, ‘I can have whatever I want whenever I want it,’ but the empowerment that comes from saying, ‘I am in control, and I won’t let myself constantly fall prey to self-defeating acts that feel good momentarily but that end up destroying me in the long run.’”

“Self-control is like a muscle,” psychology professor Roy Baumeister concludes. “The more you use it, the stronger it gets.” And the greater good you will accomplish for yourself and for others.


Literature to share

Aging with a Plan: How a Little Thought Today Can Vastly Improve Your Tomorrow by Sharona Hoffman. Caring for aging family members or planning for your own golden years? This book is a concise, comprehensive, and user-friendly planning resource with all the information you need to know — medical, financial, legal, and more — but have no time to research on your own. It includes practical advice alongside scholarly research, anecdotes and observations, planning outlines, chapter summaries and checklists to match your working or reading style. For the “sandwich generation” and seniors alike.

Boca by Moonlight by Brad Graber. You’ll see echoes of the Golden Girls in this delightfully humorous tale of widowers living out their retirement years at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. It weaves together all the elements of long lives well-lived: complicated family relationships, friendships, sadness and loss, and even mystery. It’s witty, laugh-inducing, and thought-provoking.

How Dalia Put a Big Yellow Comforter Inside a Tiny Blue Box by Linda Heller. If you’re looking for a picture book that encourages tzedakah (righteous giving) and self-control for primary ages, this one is the perfect choice. After creating her own tzedakah box, Dalia puts the coins she earns for chores into it each day, teaching her little brother all about sharing and caring for others along the way. And then the magic happens! Read this one as a family and make your own tzedakah box.


To read the complete October 2022 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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