It was 1972. Walter Mischel was a researcher at Stanford University and he was curious about the human ability to delay gratification. He gathered four year old children and one by one placed them in a room with a solitary marshmallow. The children were told that if they could refrain from eating the marshmallow while the researcher left the room (roughly 20 minutes), that they would be given a second marshmallow. About 30% of the children were able to wait. They along with the others were tracked for over 30 years and the tales of their lives are very telling. Let’s take a look.
Those children who were able to delay gratification showed higher levels of happiness emotionally and higher achievement academically. They had superior skills at managing personal and social stressors, had sharper focusing abilities, had lower levels of substance abuse, and enjoyed healthy, fulfilling relationships. Academically they boasted SAT scores that were, on average 210 points higher than the children who were not able to self regulate while in the grips of a tempting sugary delight.
Are you surprised? Self regulation and delayed gratification are both competencies of emotional intelligence skills. Countless global experts tell us that these skills create “happier”, more “successful” kids. These skills are clearly worth developing.
Now it would be easy if parents could simply mandate their kids to self regulate their urges. “Control yourself” or “just be patient” are two commands that come to mind. But since these character traits cannot be conjured in the time it takes to eat a marshmallow, we will have to institute measures to develop them in our kids. So we have reached the crux of this article. How exactly do we do this?
I believe it begins with a parent that is fully engaged with their child. Put the iPhone down and toss the newspaper aside. Get to your child’s level and teach them how to be patient so they can successfully delay gratification.
1. Be an example of patience. Kids are watching your every move. The “monkey, see monkey do” tendency in them will learn to whistle a favorite tune at the exceptionally long red traffic light, or to shriek or curse at it.
2. Communicate and teach them about alternatives. “Mary… I know you want to get that doll today, but you are going to have to wait until next week when it’s your birthday”. Until then, which of your other dolls would you like to play with?
3. Use fantasy. I know you really want the red toy truck. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have the red toy truck you want and I could have the red Ferrari I want?
4. Consider distractions. For younger children in particular, a different activity can create an “out of sight, out of mind” diversion. For example a child hungry for dinner that is 15 minutes away from being ready can be told, “No you can’t have a snack right now but we can color together until dinner is ready in 15 minutes.”
5. Praise is a powerful motivator. As always, it should be delivered with sincerity. Kids can see your adult artificiality with x-ray vision! Praise your children when you observe an honest effort at being patient, and self regulating their short term indulgences for their long term benefit. The key word here is effort. If it first they cannot succeed, encourage them to keep trying.
There’s one more thing I’d like to say about marshmallows. They are an essential ingredient in s’ mores. The individual who is in a rush to eat might just burn the marshmallow while the one who can delay gratification to slowly rotate the marshmallow over an open flame will find it a perfect golden brown, crisped on the outside, and delectably hot and gooey on the inside. It will melt the chocolate with ease to make this graham cracker sandwich a coveted campfire delight. How are your s’ mores turning out?
Please leave us a comment. We’d love to know what you think about marshmallows, tests, or s’ mores!