Does My Child Have What it Takes to Succeed? (Experimenting with the Marshmallow Test on My Kids)

I walked away from the table looking at Estelle and Ian, only to see their eyes glued to the plates in front of them.

I had placed one large marshmallow in front of Ian and one piece of Hershey’s chocolate in front of Estelle. Then, I instructed them, “You can eat this one marshmallow now, but if you can wait fifteen minutes, I’ll give you another, and you can eat two marshmallows.”  They glanced up at me, turned to each other, and then back to the marshmallow and chocolate before them.

Estelle is my 3-year old daughter who started pre-school this past year, and she is solidly in the throes of the “terrible twos.”  (Whoever first made the name terrible twos was wrong because the threes have brought with them far worse temper tantrums.  Just this morning, I prepared a customized bowl of oatmeal, with a dash of cinnamon and a swirl of honey, just the way she likes it.  But I made one “mistake” by accidentally mixing the ingredients together with her spoon, and she erupted into a full tantrum, with an upset look, tears and screams that shattered my heart as her dad.

Then, there is my 6-year old son in kindergarten, who is sharp and friendly, but incredibly impulsive as well.  He loves soccer, which he has been playing for three years but hasn’t yet learned to control the ball past others because he would rather just “boom” the ball down the field any chance he gets.  At home, he occasionally throws temper tantrums at random people or random things.  Needless to say, completing his daily chores is out of question.

My friends know that I am fixated on continual self-improvement, and I experiment a lot on myself.  So for me, having children was great — now I have two children and 3 times the opportunities to experiment!  Over the years, I’ve tested dozens of learning apps, games, and activities with them.  Recently, I came across the Marshmallow Test, and became intrigued.

Here’s the background on the now-famous Marshmallow Test.  Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a Stanford researcher names Walter Mischel conducted “The Marshmallow Experiment” that discovered children who could delay gratification would be more successful in life, as measured by SAT scores, grades in school, obesity, and substance abuse, among other measures.

I read about this and thought to myself, “Wait, through a simple 15-minute experiment, I would know whether my kids would be successful in life!”  I couldn’t resist trying the famous psychology experiment on my children.  Through the original and follow-up experiments, two-thirds of children would eat the marshmallow right away. Only one-third would be able to hold out.  How long would my children last?  Would they eat the marshmallow right away?  After 2 minutes?  Or be able to wait all 15 minutes?


How are you holding up?

As I witnessed this unfolding before me, a thousand questions raced through my brain.  Was this a sign that my daughter would be doomed?  Did I mess up this study by having Ian and Estelle doing this together?  Should I have let Ian get up and distract himself by dancing?  Why are some children able to divert their attention creatively to other things, while some become fixated on the marshmallow or chocolate?  And most significantly, what contributes to this outcome?  How much of this is genetics and how much of this can my wife and I shape?

I dug around and read about another, lesser-known experiment at University of Rochester that builds on Mischel’s work.  The Rochester study in 2012 tested whether the reliability of the experimenter influenced the choices by children.  This study altered the settings by dividing children into two groups: one was given a broken promise before the marshmallow test (the unreliable tester group), and the second group had a fulfilled promise before their test (the reliable tester group).  The results showed that the reliable tester group was able to wait 4 times as long (12 minutes) before eating their marshmallow.  One takeaway of the Rochester study was that children had to confidently believe that the rewards would come in order for them to display self-discipline, and the study even argued that reliability was a bigger determinant than self-control.

However, reading about this study made me question something different: if these children were able to be mentally primed into waiting four times as long, can we as parents condition our children’s self-control?  I believe the answer is yes, absolutely yes, and it starts young.  Here are some ideas I’ve had since then:

Parents keeping promises establishes reliability, and breaking them weakens reliability.   When I promise our children (i.e., “I’ll come watch your soccer game this week”), but then fail to keep it, how do our children feel beyond the short-term sadness?  If I apply the logic from the Rochester study, not showing up erodes trust and reliability.  So even when I feel stressed with work and think that taking time out to watch the game is not important, I have to plan ahead more.  Either I promise to show up and actually go, or I should be clear about not being able to make it in the first place.

This also applies to promises we make with our children when they are expected to do something.  The classic example in our house is “if you finish your dinner, you will get dessert.”  On too many occasions, I’ve given in, and just given them something sweet even when they haven’t eaten everything on their plate.  As a result, I am weakening my reliability again!  (Fortunately, my wife and I do better on the “if you don’t put that iPad down in ten seconds, it will go on time-out for a week” promise.)

As a side note, I realized recently that even Sesame Street is building delayed gratification into their programming.  Estelle’s favorite iPad app for the past three months has been Cookie Monster’s Challenge.   In one activity, Cookie Monster yells, “When you see pig, no touch it!”  Then a pig slowly meanders across the screen, and if you touch the pig, you go backwards in the game.  (Of course, for about a whole week, Estelle found it more fun to smack the pig every time, until she realized that she can’t progress in the game until she can control herself.)  Through a super-simple mechanism, this game is developing self-control.  Genius!

Today this problem is exacerbated by digital distractions and a culture of instant gratification.  Our children contend every minute with notifications from Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.  The potential for distraction is omnipresent, and we must combat this as parents in order to help nurture self-discipline in our children.

I believe that it will be unwise and in fact impossible to place our children in a bubble that shields them from electronic distractions forever.  Increasingly they need and will benefit from online resources.  Instead, I’m aiming to condition self-control through good habits.  So that when we aren’t home or when they go off to college, they have hopefully developed some self-discipline.  Here is what we are doing with Ian and Estelle with regards to electronic devices:

Controlled iPad time each day.  They only get it after school, for no more than an hour per day.  (On weekends and holidays, sometimes this creeps up to 3 hours.)

Using only in common areas, not in the bedrooms.  This is a big one.  Not allowing them to go into bedrooms discourages going to all the websites we don’t want them to be at.  I find this far easier than trying to whitelist or blacklist certain websites.

Not using iPads as crutches in the car, even on long trips (we’ve given in a few times on planes).  Instead we use that time to talk with our children, make up stories, rhyme words, do mental math, play other games, or hear them sing.  This has resulted in so many memorable family moments and conversations over the years.  I’m so glad we instituted this rule and never bought the DVD screens or iPad holders for the car.

Putting the iPads on time-out. When children can’t pull themselves away from Minecraft or Youtube when they are supposed to.  We try to make sure the effect (the iPad time-out punishment) is clearly related to the cause (breaking the rules of using the iPad).

So I’m going to see how much conditioning can be done.  What do you think of my approach?  Do you have suggestions?

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