Between 1968 and 1974, Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies on what makes it hard or easy for children to delay gratification and enforce self-discipline.
He started his longitudinal study by offering a group of 4-year-olds one marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for him to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows.
The “errand” took about fifteen minutes. The theory was that those children who could wait would demonstrate that they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse.
Mischel varied the rewards and experimented with keeping them visible or hidden. He found that hiding them made it easier to wait, as did offering the children suggestions for how to distract themselves. The results deepened our understanding of the nature of willpower.
Moreover, by showing how thinking can change the manifestation of personality (in this case impulsivity); Mischel’s experiments supported his “social-cognitive” approach to personality.
This challenged Freud’s classic psychoanalytical approach, which saw personality as rooted in instinctual drives and wishes.
In follow-up studies, Mischel found that children better able to develop strategies for delaying gratification spontaneously at ages 4 and 5 became more educationally successful and emotionally intelligent.
“These delay abilities seem to be a protective buffer against the development of all kinds of vulnerabilities later in life,” he concluded.
Before we continue, I’d like you to consider 3 questions:
1. How important is a child’s ability to delay immediate gratification?
2. Is self-discipline a predictor of a child’s success later in life?
3. Can a child who does not know how to delay immediate gratification be taught this skill?
Ok. Let’s take a moment and think about the child in our lives before I give you the results of the study. Close your eyes, visualize your child, grandchild, niece or nephew in The Marshmallow Study room chair. Is she eating? Is he waiting?
We all know exactly what our children will do – or do we?
Fast forward fourteen years to 1988, when the children in the experiment graduated from high school, the Marshmallow Study revealed startling differences between the two groups:
The children who exercised self-discipline and waited for the two marshmallows (65%) were:
- More socially competent
- More personally effective
- More self-assertive
- Better able to cope with life’s frustrations
- Less likely to go to pieces under stress
- Less likely to become disorganized under pressure
- More persistent in the face of difficulties
- More self-reliant and confident
- More trustworthy and dependable
- More initiating and motivated with projects
- Still able to delay gratification in pursuit of goals
- More academically successful
- Better at concentration, planning
- More eager to learn
- Earned 210 points higher scores on SAT’s
These children had developed the habits of successful adults. The habits, the centerpiece of which is delayed gratification and self discipline, point to more thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction which leads to higher incomes, and better health.
The children with exercised low self-control and gobbled up the one marshmallow (35%) were:
- Socially introverted
- More stubborn and indecisive
- More easily upset by frustrations
- More likely to think of themselves as “bad” or unworthy
- More likely to regress or become immobilized by stress
- More mistrustful and resentful about not “getting enough”
- More prone to jealousy and envy
- More likely to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper
- Still unable to delay gratification or control impulses
If not corrected, lack of impulse control will continue to trip these kids up throughout life, resulting in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and as a result low income, bad health and all around frustration with life.
LET’S Focus on You!
OK. Back to you and the child in your life. If you have a child who is clearly going to be a one-marshmallow kind of kid, don’t despair.
Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learned. Use your playtime to teach this skill. Choose toys and books and media that reinforce self-discipline and reward the behaviors daily.
Molding desired behavior when children are young and receptive is far easier than the far more challenging work required to change behavior when they are older and perhaps -how can we put it – less receptive to Mom or Dad’s instruction.
Let me provide you with a practical way to do this regarding financial discipline:
If your kids are ‘tweens or teens and have been caught up in the daily barrage of the “I want, therefore I need” spending syndrome, try this riddle.
Ask your child to record what they spend on things they want every day for a week. They can even estimate at the end of each day before they go to bed what that dollar amount is.
Typically these expenses are in the “I want” category, such as snack food or a trinket, not the “I need” category as in laces for those overly expensive sneakers.
At the end of the week sit down and see if they have spent at least $4 a day on “I wants.” Chances are they have spent that, and then some. Then, ask them to quickly answer this multiple choice test – without using a calculator:
At age 12 you decide not to buy soda or extra snacks – either during the school week or on weekends or vacations. You save $4.00 a day. You put $4 a day in a savings vehicle such as a long-term IRA CD at five percent annual interest and leave it alone.
At age 67, your savings is:
Answer: (d), or $427,025. Note that $80,352 is from the daily deposits and the remaining $346,673 is interest!
Once you tell them the answer, or they realize it themselves, their eyes will widen with renewed respect for the power and importance of saving – aka delayed gratification and self-discipline.
If we can instill these valuable lessons, we will equip our children with lifelong skills. We will be able to do what every parent hopes – deliver our child into a successful adulthood having learned first-hand the power of two marshmallows.
WHAT TO DO NOW: Share your two-cents worth on the power of delayed gratification and it’s impact on your performance.