The Two-Marshmallow Advantage

Teaching Kids the Value of Delayed Gratification


Teaching kids the value of delayed gratification.For the past fifty years, people have been talking about the “marshmallow test.” Investment companies use it to encourage retirement planning. There’s a video about it. And even Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster was put to the test – with cookies, of course.

It all started back in the early 1960s when Stanford psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel devised an experiment to test self-control in preschoolers.

The test was simple. The child was brought into a room in which a treat – a marshmallow – sat on a table. The child was then given the choice of eating the treat whenever he or she wanted or, if the child could hold out until the researcher came back into the room, the child would get two treats (marshmallows).

Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. Some waited a few minutes before succumbing to temptation. Some were able to distract themselves from the treat and wait the full 15 to 20 minutes – an eternity for a child – to get the two marshmallows.

In watching and listening to the children, Mischel realized those who waited were better able to sustain effort and deal with frustration using strategies that any child could learn. In other words, self-control and willpower were not genetically predetermined as had been thought but were skills.

But there was more. In following up on the original test subjects, he discovered that these strategies and tactics learned early in life helped the children later in life as well.

When they reached their teens, the preschoolers who were able to wait for two marshmallows overall did better in school and had higher SAT scores. As they matured, this group also typically had lower rates of addiction, lower divorce rates and fewer weight problems over their lifetimes.

Does this mean that the children who couldn’t wait were failures? Not at all. It simply showed that the children who had been able to delay eating the one marshmallow when young were still able to stay focused on a future and what they perceived to be a better reward well into adulthood.

As parents, we can help our children learn the benefits of self-control and delayed gratification. The lessons can be simple. They can be fun. And they can be the foundation for facing and overcoming challenges and temptations in the future.

Here are some ideas from the marshmallow test that I found interesting:

  • Create a picture. I talked about this in a previous post to help with financial management. In that instance, a picture provided a visual incentive for saving. In the case of resisting a cookie or a snack, having the child turn the snack into a picture in his or her mind creates a distraction. You can even have the child draw the picture as a distraction. As one little girl who successfully used this method to wait for the two marshmallows in the Marshmallow Test pointed out, “You can’t eat a picture.”
  • Turn on the imagination. Talk to your child about how he or she would handle resisting a temptation. For some of the older children (five to nine) in the Marshmallow Test, they chose to sing a song or pretend to be in outer space. One nine-year old said he created stories around imaginary characters and another pretended the marshmallow was a big puffy cloud floating through the air.
  • Develop an “if-then” plan. Talk with your child about how to handle a possible distraction that could take them away from a task they need to complete. For example, if a friend starts trying to get your child to go play when she is supposed to be finishing her homework, then your child could say, “No. I can’t; I’m working.”  For one nine-year old faced with the marshmallow temptation focusing on the contingency of waiting helped him hold out for the bigger reward, “If I wait, then I can get the two marshmallows, but if I ring, then I’ll get just one.”

You may want to add to the fun of the learning experience by making videos or taking pictures. By creating a record of these lessons, you’ll be providing a valuable legacy for the next generation when it’s time for them to learn the two-marshmallow advantage.

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