I imagine that I am probably not alone in finding the recent traffic works in Tonbridge High Street infuriating. Sitting waiting in traffic, despite my best efforts to travel at a time when few others are on the road makes me feel fed up. I am sure that I can actually feel my blood pressure rising. I can see the number of unanswered emails in my mind’s eye as my mobile pings to tell me of another one arriving in my inbox, fresh delivered. The red light of the pedestrian crossing glares at me with its lambent eye in the darkness. Why do I have to wait? And yet, I have no choice, I’m part of society after all.
Learning to wait well matters. Patience really is a virtue, albeit not a fashionable one. I think that it is something that we should and indeed do teach in schools.
In teaching children patient self-control, schools are cutting across a number of forces that are currently very powerful in our culture. You don’t have to look far to find messages that instant gratification of our appetites is both possible and deeply desirable. We have designed food to be not simply fast, but even instant. Each birthday or Christmas, parents are encouraged to consider the purchase of a new gaming device whose main advantage over its soon-to-be-redundant forebear is that is much faster. 4G has replaced 3G in speeding us along the internet.
In the past, if I wanted to justify or explain the importance of teaching children patience, I would make rather uncritical reference to the research undertaken by Stanford Psychology Professor Walter Mischel in the 1970s. Mischel used marshmallows to explore the self-control of 4 year olds. He tracked the impact of this index of self-control on their lives in a longitudinal study, finding that children with high levels of self-control aged 4 went on to experience a range of socio-economic and educational advantages later in their lives. So it came as quite a blow to discover that more recent studies in the same field, for example the research by Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Hoanen Quen published in 2018 found that the correlation between self-control aged 4 and achievement and behaviour aged 15 was statistically insignificant. It now seems as though self-control is not the all important determinant of life success that I had considered it to be on the basis of my understanding of Mischel.
Hold on a minute though! Just because the correlation between 4 year old self-control and adolescent behaviour is not statistically significant, doesn’t mean we should right off the importance of self-control and patience to learning to operate successfully and well in the adult world. Rather the fact that some children between the ages of 4 and adolescence learn to control their impulses better indicates the importance schooling may play in this field. Indeed I’d argue it is one of a number of critical elements of character education that schools should contribute to.
Schools like Bennett, with a clear and strong disciplinary culture, teach children the importance of taking turns, listening and respecting the contributions of others. We also teach children explicitly about the significance and importance of learning to wait patiently and well, in joyful expectation.
As a Christian school we have begun to mark the season of Advent. The four Sundays and weeks of Advent are an opportunity to consider and reflect as we wait in joyful expectation for the coming of Christ. Of course, like many in the world beyond school, we understand them as part of a countdown to the celebrations of the Nativity at Christmas, but we also point to their significance as a period of Christian preparation of the soul in readiness for the moment of meeting our Redeemer. Reverend Dr Rob Marshall, speaking on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Saturday quoted the Benedictine nun Maria Boulding who described Advent as, “the sacrament of everyone’s longing”. This really resonated with me. Sharing in a Christian life where we talk together about the virtue of waiting well seems an important counterbalance to the forces which drive us towards instant gratification. I’ll certainly try to have this in mind as I next sit in the traffic.