A simple test involving a small room, a marshmallow, and a salivating four-year-old tells us a lot about what kids will achieve later in life.
The original “marshmallow test” was conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s by a researcher named Walter Mischel. Each four-year-old in the study was given one marshmallow and told that he could eat it now, in which case he would only have one, or he could wait for the adult to come back into the room fifteen minutes later, in which case he could have two marshmallows. Some kids downed the treat immediately, many waited a short time and then caved, while around thirty percent held out for the doubly sweet reward. Mischel has followed these subjects over the decades and found that the ones who delayed gratification had higher grades, higher SAT scores, and fared better as teenagers with healthier friendships.
According to this line of research, self-control may trump IQ scores when it comes to predicting success. So how do we help our kids hone this skill? Let’s start first by understanding what we’re up against. As all parents know, little kids are mostly “id.” Every desire, feeling, and impulse seems to burst out of them unfiltered. This is because the parts of the brain that generate meltdowns one minute and giggle fits the next develop early on, but the regions of the brain that manage those big feelings are much slower to come online. Feelings come from the limbic system, deep in the brain – this is an evolutionarily older region that basically gives us raw emotion. In a grown-up’s brain, the frontal cortex (the big overhang behind the eyes) talks the limbic system off the ledge, allowing us to modulate and generally make sense of our emotions.
Starting around the sixth to eighth months of life, signals begin to reach the frontal cortex – you might notice that your older baby can wait a few seconds when she knows her bottle is on the way. By age two, this region is picking up speed, but it has a long way to go. Even through adolescence and into our twenties, connections to the frontal cortex continue to strengthen.
So it’s an uphill battle for your child to get his feelings under control enough to delay gratification. But parents play a big role in this process. From an early age, you can build in daily doses of waiting – for your toddler this might mean the 60 seconds it takes to wash the blueberries. As she gets older, it translates into taking turns with a toy or finishing dinner before watching a video. Talk to your kid about ways to make this easier – maybe it’s counting to ten or taking a deep breath. The kids in the marshmallow study did better if they sang songs or were given strategies like pretending the treat was just a picture. It’s not much of a leap to see how these are the seeds of success – later it’s studying instead of hitting the bars or maintaining healthy diet and exercise habits. Until then, know that your little one needs a lot of help making sense of her hot emotions. Next time she melts down because you told her she can’t throw your cell phone in the bathtub, think about the fact that she’s not being an irrational pain (okay, well, technically she is), but she might be doing the best she can with the brain power she has.