Little Anna Bailey had a secret. And her older sister, Emily, wanted it.
It was January 1996 and Emily’s fifth birthday was just a few days away. Rumors within the Bailey household were rampant that the parents bought Emily something special for her big day. The excitement was too much for Emily—she had to find out!
Full disclosure: I have been a card carrying member of the Owen & Genie Bailey Fan Club for some time now, but I believe what I am about to tell you might have been their only parenting mistake in all the years I have known them. For some reason, Owen and Genie entrusted poor little Anna with what they got Emily for her birthday.
This information was hers alone to bear under relentless interrogation by her older sister. How much willpower could Anna—mature and sophisticated toddler that she was—display over the next few days? Time would tell.
For nearly a generation, psychologists have concluded that exhibiting willpower can lead to positive life outcomes.
Does anyone remember the research experiment performed by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960’s where preschool children were given a marshmallow, left alone in a room for ten minutes, and asked not to eat said marshmallow?
If the kid had enough self-control, Mischel awarded them with a second marshmallow to enjoy. If the child gave in and succumbed to temptation, he or she would ring a bell and the experiment was over. One of the kids tested was Mischel’s daughter by the way.
The research was met with universal … yawning. Only years later, when Mischel chatted with his daughter did he correlate that her peers that were doing well in school—both academically and socially—were the ones that demonstrated self-control with the marshmallows.
What? It couldn’t be true! But it was. So Mischel followed these kids for years and years and his initial observations were correct. The more willpower displayed, the better the life outcomes.
Poor Anna. Her life outcome was hanging in the balance thanks to her reckless parents.
As her big day approached, Emily preyed upon Anna waiting for the moment that her younger, weaker sister was separated from the herd. When her parents left her and Anna playing alone, she pounced.
“Anna,” purred Emily, “do you know what Mama and Daddy got me for my birthday?”
Both sisters were raised to tell the truth no matter what, so Emily started with an ethical question. Clever girl.
“Uh-huh,” answered Anna truthfully.
And with that answer, Anna displayed the secret to increasing your willpower or resolve. With her parents help, she knew that whatever the situation, to always be truthful. (At least her parents did something right.)
Anna made what researchers call “a cold-blooded decision for a hot-blooded situation.” In other words, anyone can display more willpower if you rationally and calmly decide what you are going to do ahead of time when specific situations arise. If you wait to make a decision in the heat of battle, you are doomed.
For example, if chocolate tempts you at Halloween, buy Skittles to give away instead.
If you are worried about blowing your diet at Thanksgiving, pre-select your holiday meal prior to sitting down at the table.
If you buy impulsively at Christmas, ask people ahead of time specifically what they want so you can stay on budget.
I recently succumbed to a bad habit of eating after supper, so for the next two months I plan on drinking water if I feel the urge to eat late at night. Of course, as a middle age man who already gets up in the middle of the night, this poses a whole new set of problems, but I digress.
Back to poor Anna. She did not possess such wonderful psychology prowess yet—she was only three. Yet she stood firm as Emily attempted to chip away her resolve with intense cross-examination.
“What did they get me, Anna?” Emily pleaded.
Anna remained cool under pressure and simply replied, “No!”
Emily regrouped. She thought, There must be something I can do to crack this principled preschooler! (I confirmed that this was, in fact, her exact thought in a recent interview.) Then, like the serpent tempting Adam and Eve, Emily’s left eyebrow raised and a sly, sneaky grin came across her face.
She disappeared out of the room.
When she came back, she asked her sister again, “Anna, what did they get me for my birthday?”
Anna stood firm.
Emily pulled a stick of Fruit Stripe gum from her pocket. “Anna, I have gum.”
“Suzy Stretch doll!” came Anna’s enthusiastic reply.
Please, before we heap criticism on three-year-old Anna for her lack of resolve, remember that the name Anna means “grace” which is what we should extend to her.
The moral of this story is this. Willpower increases when you decide ahead of time what you will do in certain situations. And the more of these decisions you make, the more your willpower grows.
But let’s be realistic. There is only so much you can endure when Fruit Stripe gum is on the table.
P.S. BOTH girls turned out to be fantastic young women with great life outcomes…