11/27/2012 06:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013

The Happiness Deferral Chain: Music Versus Test Preparation

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my college-student daughter started singing. She knew, and claimed that her friends knew, hundreds of songs. My father, a pediatrician, asked what he thought was a rhetorical question. "Why do kids know the words to every song but they can't memorize something for a test that will get them a higher grade?"

This is, actually, a real question.

Alfie Kohn and the folks who ruminate on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation would easily explain that kids love music and derive genuine pleasure -- happiness, flow -- from being able to sing it. (New research is demonstrating neurobiological reasons that make shared rhythms and predictable patterns pleasing, soothing, and even healthy for our species, with its likely evolutionary selection for sociality.) Nobody has to force children to learn songs. They willingly repeat them, to the point of adult annoyance or even hysteria. "If I have to hear that one more time, I'll kill myself!" I felt that about the Barney song 20 years ago: "I love you, you love me."

But this is not only about music, either.

What my dad wanted to point out was how lazy, foolish, short-sighted children were. They could surely use their abilities to do something more useful than simply to sing popular songs. They could study. They could make flash cards, they could settle down and focus on the stuff that their teachers wanted them to learn, and get good grades.

But the reason this is a real question is not only that the test preparation is, sometimes, boring. It is that the gains are so remote, via such an extremely long chain of causality, that any ordinary person would refuse this. We are not talking about waiting to eat the brownies until the broccoli is finished, or even about drinking milk as a teenager to avoid osteoporosis as a postmenopausal woman. (Wait! How long a deferred benefit is this? Maybe it is similar.)

We are talking about a chain of causality that goes like this:

I will stay in one place even though I'm fidgety so I can sit and learn the order of the elements/which Greek philosopher was associated with which school/the founders of the state of Indiana/the Krebs cycle. (Full disclosure: I'm such a nerd that I can hardly think of anything that couldn't be intrinsically interesting to me. But I recognize that I'm not a representative human.) If I do well on this test, I will get a good grade. If I get a good grade, my parents will be happy and my teacher will like me. I will get into the next level of courses. I will graduate from high school and with more good grades, and with more days spent like this, I will get into a good college. In college I get to do the same thing all over again. Once I graduate from college, I will find a good job. This job will get me money and if I'm lucky it will not be as boring as most jobs. All this will make me happy.

What is amazing is that huge numbers of children do actually engage in this process. They do study, for the purpose of getting those sacred grades. Some learn to enjoy the process of learning. But that doesn't make it any stranger.

I agree in principle that "deferring gratification" and using that "executive function" are worth learning and practicing. But to be surprised that children have trouble seeing rewards decades out, in comparison with the meaningful satisfaction derived from freely chosen activities, is to ignore the nature of humans.

And often our schooling does just that.