Delaying gratification is necessary for good parenting. The ability to delay gratification is not easily acquired. It is not acquired all at once. It is acquired throughout life, beginning in early childhood, when learning to delay gratification struggles against the child's impulsiveness. When teenagers impulsively have sex and become (biological) parents, the manner of acquiring parenthood is a strong predictor that the new parents will lack the capability for parenting. Single parent family - or as we often see now, no parent family - soon becomes the infant's environment. A cycle shall repeat itself.
The middle class community, or neighborhood, or village, a generation ago, had many institutions through which the two-parent family worked to teach a child to delay gratification, among many lessons of life. Before I was twelve, I had struggled through merit training in Cub Scouts, YMCA summer camps, and Episcopal Church sunday school. These activities of course supplemented regular elementary school, which I attended in an era when self-esteem was earned through study and grades, rather than being awarded gratuitously in fatuous programs mandated by the state.
When I was a Cub Scout, my mother was a den mother and my father was a Boy Scout pack master. I had a program of skills to accomplish. Each success led to a new merit badge. Our merit badges were gold arrowheads. Eventually I had columns of merit badges running down from the pocket of my blue Cub Scout shirt. Not as many as my cousin, however. My cousin, my childhood companion and playmate, had so many merit badges that, to display them all, he would not tuck in his shirt. Then there were five summers of boys camp. The early years were sheer misery for me, because I was taken away from my many cousins and school playmates in the small village where I grew up. Eventually, I learned to submerge my sorrow in camp team sports. Each sport, of course, came with grades of accomplishment. I was a poor athlete and seldom earned more than simple participation badges; but I did become a sufficiently good marksman on the rifle team to obtain a third-place competition badge. I struggled unsuccessfully at tennis. I failed miserably at swimming. I was competitive only in underwater distance swimming (an irony, because I was afflicted with asthma). I never made the first underwater team, however, because I had no sense of direction and kept swimming out of the marked competition area.
In Episcopal Sunday school, we earned attendance badges. I earned many of these, as well as learning badges. My cousins bettered me here, too. Eventually, I became an acolyte, carried the cross, lighted and snuffed candles at the altar. This status was an achievement and an honor. I loved wearing the robes, walking in the procession, and holding the stage at the front of the church.
By the time I was a teenager, I had internalized several lessons about delayed gratification. Achievement took a long time, but could be accomplished in steps. Patience was important for skill acquisition. Achievement would not come without skills. Self-esteem came at the end, not the beginning, of the path of achievement.
I thought a lot about these lessons when I raised my son. We enrolled him in Webelos, over his loud protestations. We also enrolled a black friend, whose stepfather, a loving man supporting his wife's large family, did not have the time to do so. I attended the meetings with these two boys, went on a camping trip with them, tried to guide their projects between meetings. I could not help my son's friend, a wonderful boy, as much as I wanted. For both boys, the Webelos was an experiment that failed. Neither boy could focus their attention on it. Neither apparently absorbed any lessons about delaying gratification. My son began to learn such lessons on his own in college; but, following a girl friend to another country after school, is learning them still. His friend's family moved out of the neighborhood, to another school district, so we lost daily contact with him; but his mother did not urge him to attend college. His stepfather, a veteran, might have encouraged him to enter the service - where lessons in delayed gratification are taught with merit badges; but I do not know if this is the case. At any rate, I felt like I was trying to hold together a disintegrating world; I could not do so by myself.