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The Marshmallow Test.

How self-control predicts kids' success.

By Heather Turgeon |

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.

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “The Marshmallow Test.

  1. jen m says:

    I really want to help my kids learn self control. What can else can I do in our day to day lives?

  2. anonymom says:

    I recently heard a great radio story about this on NPR. Here’s the link for those interested:

  3. amaratilley says:

    as a child I would have eaten it. My mother always made promises like that – if you wait then you can have (something fabulous). Only she never followed through. So the only way to get anything was to take what there was right now.
    Parenting counts.

  4. waiting says:

    if i go by this theory, my son is going to end up living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere. :)
    (I say that in jest, but I do worry….)

  5. lisa m says:

    really interesting article. our daughter is definitely a ‘first marshmallow’ girl. (she said worriedly …)

  6. anon2 says:

    My daughter used to be a “first marshmallow” girl, too, but she’s slowly learned some self-discipline. When she was smaller (maybe 3 or so) we instituted a penny system, whereby when she was “caught” doing something good, she would earn a penny or two. If she misbehaved, the appropriate number of pennies would be removed from her jar. She could redeem the pennies for special privileges: I think watching a 1/2 hour tv show “cost” 3 pennies, going to the local science museum cost 10 pennies and going out to lunch with Mommy was 20 pennies. There were lots of rewards, I don’t remember them all anymore. At first, she would spend all her pennies on tv–as soon as she had 3 she’d be hunting for the remote. But slowly she learned to “save them up” for things she would enjoy more, like an afternoon at the science museum. Now that she’s a little older and the tooth fairy visits our home with some frequency and she squirrels away the 5 and 10 dollar bills that get sent to her by her grandmothers from time to time and she is disciplined enough to save the money in her little wallet, sometimes for months at a time, until she has enough for whatever toy she’s coveting at the moment. I always tell her how proud I am that she’s able to delay her gratification and not spend each little windfall as soon as it comes, because far too many *adults* aren’t capable of that!

  7. Denise says:

    I blogged about this on Confessions of a Mean Mommy a few months ago:
    Denise Schipani

  8. anon says:

    At my son’s montessori school, there are 2 chairs at the snack table, and 1 chair a few feet away that is the “waiting” chair. If both snack chairs are taken and you would like to get a snack, you need to sit in the waiting chair until 1 of the snack chairs is free. If you get impatient and get up from the chair and someone else comes along and sits in the chair, you’re SOL.

  9. mary p says:

    what about when he melts down at barnes and noble? :) great article. i need to put this one up on the wall.

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