The Marshmallow Experiment: Does Your Child Know How to Wait?

can you have just one?

Can you have just one?

I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker yesterday. (Which, having read the magazine weekly for years now, is a sentence that pops out of my mouth pretty frequently.) It’s called “Don’t! The Secret of Self Control,” by Jonah Lehrer. The piece opens with a description of an experiment conducted in the late 1960s, in a nursery school on the campus of Stanford University. In the study, four-year-olds were allowed to choose from an array of treats. The girl in the piece picks a marshmallow (right away I was hooked; I, too, can’t resist those puffed bits of pure sugar). She’s told she can eat the treat now or–if she can hold out for a short while, until the researcher returns to the room–she can have two. Two!

The girl in the opening anecdote sits on her hands, staring at her treat, biding her time in the secure knowledge that waiting will net her a bigger payoff. Lots of kids in the experiment, the researchers found, figured out little tricks to keep themselves from diving into their goodies, from sitting on their hands to turning away from the temptation temporarily. And lots of kids simply…couldn’t. There was no punishment to bailing on the promise of extra treats; those who found they’d rather have the goods now than wait for double stuff later simply rang a bell, whereupon the researcher would come back and they’d get their one marshmallow.

The really interesting bit was that the researchers followed up with these kids (only about 30%, incidentally, fell into what they called the “high delayer” category) for years, and wouldn’t you know it, kids who were able to delay their gratification ended up more successful as adults.

Delayed gratification. Seems like a good thing to learn, right? The question that popped to mind after reading the piece (aside from wondering if I had any marshmallows in the house) was this: Do our kids know how to wait? I thought about my own boys. They’re just little kids, for whom “patience” is not exactly a religion. But still: I realize that teaching patience is an important task, and it can be frustrated by the fact that we live in a pretty impatient, gimme-now world. The fact is, it’s easy to get what we want, when we want it. Stores are always open, so we don’t have that excuse.

I’ve been dealing with some patience issues with my younger boy, James. He’s waaaay more impatient than his big brother. If he calls one of us–say, from his bed at night, wanting his covers fixed or whatever–he’ll actually take us to task if we don’t get there quick enough: “It’s taking a long time!” Part of it, naturally, is a four year old’s poor conception of time. But part of it is patience, which we’re constantly telling him he needs more of. My husband held out the promise of a new toy car if he was good all week, and he now asks for it every single day. No, multiple times a day. (“Are we going to get it now? I was just good!”)

So I started thinking of ways to teach kids to delay gratification. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, and please–feel free to chime in with your own ideas:

  • Limit their “treats.” You already know I’m not one of those moms doling out candy and snacks left and right. I really do stick to my guns and save treats for certain times. The boys get a treat after dinner if they’re good at the table. They get a lollipop at the doctor’s office. The fewer and farther between treats are, the more kids are able to wait for them. I call it the “lollipops are not a given” approach.
  • Make ordinary fun stuff seem extraordinary. When we’re going to go anyplace beyond the everyday (from a friend’s birthday party to a family get-together to a trip to the city), we promote the heck out of it, to make it seem special. What I believe this does: It elevates their experience in such a way that they realize the difference between the everyday (we’re going to school…) and the special (we’re going to Aunt Marie’s for pizza!). In turn, that makes it easier to ask them to wait for fun stuff, the big (a trip to Florida) or small (dinner at the diner).
  • Just tell ’em! The thing with the toy car is instructive: It would be so so easy to just throw up my hands, growl at my husband for coming up with the bright idea of getting James a car as a reward, and just get him the darn thing to shut him up. But I don’t. I tell him that being good means being good all week, and that we’ll talk about the car again on Friday. It sets up an endless stream of questions (“Is it Friday this day?” “When is tomorrow?”) which are Kafkaesque with your average four year old, and it wears on my patience, but the down-the-road reward will be (hopefully) a boy who can wait.

How do you help your kids keep their hands out of the marshmallows?