Misinterpreting Marshmallows

The marshmallows in question were part of experiments on delayed gratification conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960’s.  In the original experiment, children between the ages of 4 to 6 were alone in a room at a table that had one marshmallow on it in front of them.  The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow if they wished but if they waited until the examiner came back without eating it, they would get two marshmallows.  The waiting time was 15 minutes but they were given a bell they could ring at any time to bring the examiner back.

The purpose of the experiment was to see if young children could delay gratification – wait for something they wanted, which is also related to the question of self-control and impulse control.  Also studied were the methods used to delay gratification by the children who were able to wait.  This study has been repeated many times with different population in the years since and is often referred to in discussions of children and self-control.  In particular, what have been cited are the follow-up studies that showed greater success in many areas of functioning by the children who were able to wait.

Although Mischel, himself, has tried to clarify the implications of the study, unfortunately, what has been taken away from the findings is the idea that some children have a natural capacity for self-control and have achieved early the ability to defer gratification and that these are the children who will be successful in life.  In recent years there has been much focus on these traits, particularly their absence, in discussions of educational difficulties and problems with children’s behavior generally.  Parents are frequently implicated as a source of the difficulty.

There is some validity to the idea that some children have a natural greater ability to achieve self-control and more easily are able to wait for what they want.  By temperament and physiology some are more easy going than others.  However, it is a characteristic of young children generally to seek immediate gratification of their needs and wishes.  As with other skills, the ability to wait, to tolerate frustration, to control impulses, and to defer gratifying wishes, is in large part a matter of development, maturation and learning.  Also, as with other skills, there is greater variation in the speed and ability with which children achieve mastery.

Fifteen minutes is a very long time to expect young children to sit and wait in the face of temptation – particularly alone in a room with the tempting treat in front of them. It is an unrealistic expectation for children under five years of age.  Researchers have studied the techniques used by the children who were successful in waiting.  These included closing their eyes, turning their backs on the marshmallow, pushing it away and purposefully thinking about other things.  Problem-solving in this way is itself a developmental matter in which children are moving ahead differently.

The fact is that education as well as physical maturation plays an important role in the development of these skills.  Teachers and parents teach these skills in various ways even when they may not realize it.  Teaching is involved in the way expectations are set for children and in the readiness to offer support in meeting those expectations.  Since young children do seek immediate gratification of their wants and have limited tolerance for frustration, daily life offers many opportunities for such teaching.

A recurring example is children wanting treats between meals or a toy they see in a store window.  Too often, when children seem demanding, adults are judgmental and react critically to their requests.  But our job really is to help them through the difficulty of waiting or of not getting what they want.  We offer support by sympathizing with how hard it is to wait but also by being realistic about what we expect of them.

Observing in nursery schools when children are asked to wait in line, it is always interesting to see the different results reached by teachers who help them by offering distraction or talking to them about something as compared to those who are more critical and reproach children who are not managing well. 

As parents of young children, it is difficult at times to be patient with children’s recurring demands.  At times it feels easier to either just give them what they want or to scold critically.  But real learning takes place through repetition and success.  If we help them through the times that are difficult for them, they can begin to experience what that is like and to eventually accomplish it on their own.

Two marshmallows instead of one may be a reward for waiting, but the goal is for children to learn that deferring gratification is a requirement of growing up that can bring other kinds of more meaningful rewards.