Do your kids have self-control? There’s a great way to find out and you can do it right at your kitchen table. It’s called “The Marshmallow Test” and it’s creative way to teach your children about the value of self-discipline.
Here’s how it started:
In the 1970’s, a psychology professor at Stanford University named Walter Mischel ran a series of experiments involving four-year olds and marshmallows. He would offer each child a marshmallow and tell them that if they did not eat it for 20 minutes, he would give them another. Almost every kid agreed to the terms and said they wanted two marshmallows… but guess how many were able to wait it out? Only one in three.
It’s perfectly understandable, especially considering that 15 minutes is an eternity for most four-year olds. Some kids broke down in 20 seconds, some in 40, others in two minutes. A few even lasted 14 minutes before breaking down and eating the marshmallow.
The kids that were able to resist the lure of the marshmallow all had a few things in common. They agonized over eating the marshmallow – staring at it, poking it and even licking it. But they distracted themselves. They put the marshmallow out of their mind and did math or played word games. And after 20 minutes, the researcher came back in and gave them a second marshmallow. The kids who succeeded were so happy and proud of themselves, and marshmallows never tasted so good!
But the test wasn’t just about a short term ego boost. After 14 years, Professor Mischel went back to check on the test subjects and the results were quite surprising. Those who waited for the second marshmallow turned out to be more academically successful and assertive than those who didn’t. They even scored an average of 210 points higher in their school exams than their less patient counterparts.
What’s the reason for this correlation? The most obvious answer is that they were successful because they had the one quality in life that makes people get ahead: the ability to delay gratification.
If you’re curious whether your child would pass “The Marshmallow Test,” here’s how to try it at home:
- Two marshmallows (cookies can also be substituted, choose something your child likes but isn’t neccessarily their absolute to-die-for favorite)
- A room free of distractions
- Watch or timer
(It’s a rather affordable experiment.)
Plop your kid down at the kitchen table, spell out the terms and go do something else. Keep an eye on your little one so you can see if he or she caves.
Now, this little test can go one of two ways. Either he resists, and you can be super happy that your child has self-control. You give him the second marshmallow and a high-five. Your job as a parent is done.
But if your child does eat it, don’t panic. Remember, 20 minutes is a long time for a four-year-old. What you do next, is exert some self-control of your own. Don’t give away the second marshmallow, even if your kid looks really sad. If you do that you are sending the wrong message, that even if you break the terms, you still get the reward. And kids who are conditioned to expect that are in for a rough-awakening when they grow up.
If you don’t give them that second marshmallow you are doing the best job you can as a parent. You are showing consequences without punishing. Rules are rules, after all. Luckily, you can change the rules the next time. If your son only lasted 8 minutes, repeat the experiment with a 12 minute timer. Or increase the payout to three marshmallows, and see if that has an effect on how long he can hold-out. A success after initial difficulty is the best reward.
Would you give your kids the marshmallow test? Do you think they would they pass?