Whether or not you're a fan of the now infamous marshmallow test developed by Walter Mischel, you probably want your child to be able to manage him or herself to meet their own goals. As you'll see in this article, it is probably true that kids with greater self control do grow up to be more competent, confident, and happier. But it's also true that we can coach every child to develop more "self-control" because self-control isn't about will-power, as is commonly assumed. Self-control is actually a function of self-regulation.
What does the marshmallow test have to do with self-control? Walter Mischel was a Stanford professor and researcher who was interested in how children learn the skills to delay gratification and achieve their goals. What he found is that self-control has a lot to do with self-regulation, or the ability to manage impulses and emotions.
“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” - Walter Mischel
In this article, I'll describe the Marshmallow test and why it's useful for every parent to understand. Not so that we can test our kids, but so that we can encourage emotional intelligence! In my next post, we'll explore how children actually develop self-control and why we're really talking about the ability to self-regulate.
Mischel found that when young children are offered a choice between one or two treats they like, such as marshmallows or cookies, they always choose two. Mischel then told the children in his studies “Here is one treat on this plate, but look -- there are additional treats in this tin. I need to leave the room for a few minutes. If you don’t eat this treat while I’m gone, when I come back I will give you an additional treat from the tin. If you can’t wait to eat this one, that’s fine, but you won’t get a second treat. If you can wait, then when I come back, I will give you the second treat as well as this one.”
Virtually all toddlers will eat the first treat as soon as the researcher leaves the room. They can’t wait, no matter how much they want the second treat, for the same reason they can’t always follow your rules at home. They may very much want to, but their brain development isn’t sufficient for them to control their own impulses, even to meet a goal that is important to them.
Even once they’re preschoolers, most kids -- 70% -- can’t control their impulses enough to avoid eating the first treat, no matter how much they also want the second one.
I admit that when I first heard about this experiment I thought it was a bit cruel, and I wondered why we read so much into it. After all, what if the child doesn’t like marshmallows, or doesn't WANT the second cookie? And who cares if they can resist eating it?
But here's the thing. Once we find a treat the child likes, virtually all young children want the second treat, so the question becomes whether the child can manage his impulses in order to meet his own goals. Every child will eventually develop this capacity. But why does it happen earlier for some children, that they have developed their rational frontal cortex sufficiently to regulate their emotions, their anxiety about getting the treat, and their impulses? This huge accomplishment of being able to delay gratification is an indicator of the child’s emerging self-mastery, which allows him, in turn, to master the world. (Here's an in-depth article from the New Yorker on this experiment.)
Remember, 30% of preschoolers CAN control themselves enough to not eat the treat. What can we learn from them?
Studies show that these four year olds do better throughout school, better with peers, and are rated by parents as more cooperative. They’re better at concentrating, at screening out distractions. As they grow, they’re more competent, confident, and happier. They even score an average of 200 points higher on their SATS, which isn’t really surprising given that they’re higher-achieving students and better at regulating their own anxiety. In fact, the marshmallow test predicts academic achievement better than IQ does.
“The more seconds they waited at age 4 or 5, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive function in adolescence,” Mischel wrote in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.
Forty years later the kids who succeeded at managing their impulses in the face of temptation are healthier, wealthier, more accomplished -- even thinner. But what matters to me is that they're happier. Which isn't so surprising, given that their lives work better. Clearly, there's something important here for all parents to understand.
The Marshmallow test isn't just about the ability to "delay gratification," as it is often described. And it isn't about "self-discipline" in the sense that Alfie Kohn defines it: "marshaling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." As Mischel said, his test measured a child's ability to manage her "hot emotions" so that she could make a given situation work for her and reach her OWN goals. In other words, this is not about a child meeting someone else's expectations. It is about the child's ability to manage herself to reach her own goals in life.
It’s easy to see why the ability to control their impulses helps kids become happier. A child who can regulate his emotions can control his behavior so he's more likely to get what he wants out of life.
But this does NOT mean that if your child grabs the treat and eats it, they'll never be able to manage themselves. The Bing Nursery School where the studies
were done emphasizes that "These studies demystified willpower and showed how self-control and emotion regulation could be enhanced, taught and learned, beginning very early in life, even by children who initially had much difficulty delaying gratification."
So how can you help your child learn self-regulation?
It's possible that some children may be born with an advantage. Brain scans find actual physical differences between adults who were able, at age four, to delay eating the treat, and those who weren't. The prefrontal cortex was more active in high delayers and the ventral striatum was more active in low delayers when they were trying to control their responses to alluring temptations.
But many researchers believe that these brain differences are not innate, but are instead the result of children having different experiences during the first four years of life. Children who are more stressed by their experiences have a harder time self-regulating (which is also true for adults.)
And we know that the brain is taking shape in response to our use of it at all ages, and especially in the first five years. So the repeated experience of choosing to control an impulse in order to achieve a higher goal would have the effect of strengthening the prefrontal cortex. In other words, practicing self-discipline builds the brain muscle to self-regulate.
BUT -- and here's the catch -- the child has to be the one choosing to exercise the self discipline, to choose to give up something they want (one marshmallow) for something they want more (two marshmallows). We'll talk more about this in our next post.
It also turns out that we can help children become more successful at the task in this experiment -- delayed gratification -- by teaching them simple techniques to manage their minds. Of course, we don't yet know how well these learned techniques for this specific task translate into more control in real life, but we do know that any repeated brain action builds neural pathways. What we know about the brain suggests that a child would need to "practice" those techniques regularly to sustain those skills.
So the question is, regardless of your child's innate ability, how can you raise a child who can manage her emotions, anxiety and impulses so that she can manage her behavior to accomplish her goals? We'll dig into the answer to that question in our next post, How to Help Your Child Develop Self Control. For today, just notice your own ability to manage your emotions and behavior. (Yes, that's a clue!)
How can I replicate the Marshmallow Test at home to see if my preschooler will be successful in life?
You can't! Seriously, this test was not done with parents, but with a specific lab protocol. And if this is your focus, you're missing the point. The point is that children CAN develop the ability to self-regulate in early childhood and it will help them achieve their goals in life. The question is HOW to help them develop that ability (which is our next post.) If you're raising an emotionally intelligent child, then you don't have to test your child. You know they're developing the emotional regulation to be successful and happy. So there's no need to test your child; just ask yourself if you as the parent are doing the things we talk about in the next post.
Wasn't there follow-up research that showed that the child has to trust that the adult promising that the double treat will really deliver, so that kids from food-insecure backgrounds could not be reliably tested? Yes, indeed. If the researcher purposely made himself seem unreliable (for instance, by promising toys that turned out not to be in the room), the children were much more likely to eat the first treat immediately. That's a smart response if you don't trust the adult to keep their promises. And certainly some children have grown up in situations where if you don't eat now, there might not be food later, so they've learned that it's smarter to go for immediate gratification. But none of this invalidates Mischel's findings that the children who were able to delay eating the treat -- when they wanted to because they thought that was the most likely path to getting what they wanted -- were also able to be more successful throughout life.
I've heard that the Marshmallow test is actually just a test of intelligence, not the ability to self-manage, which would explain the higher SAT scores and grades.
Well, the kids did have to come up with strategies to avoid eating the marshmallow, and it certainly makes sense that children who had more intellectual resource would be more successful at that. These strategies ranged from not-so helpful, like stroking the marshmallow lovingly (guess how long it took to reach the child's mouth?) to covering the marshmallow so it wasn't visible and focusing on a toy (which, yes, was an effective strategy to resist eating the treat.) But the ability to distract themselves with strategies wouldn't be a simple question of IQ; it might well have more to do with creativity, as well as the emotional regulation to hold their impulses in check.
Don't forget that the high-delayers were also more successful with peers, more cooperative with parents and physically healthier as adults, all of which would probably have more to do with emotional regulation than with IQ. So we're talking about success in many areas of life, not just IQ-related.
And of course, the whole concept of IQ is suspect. IQ is probably measuring a combination of environment and privilege (How much were the parents able to read to and speak with the child?) and executive function. And we know that executive function is influenced by emotional intelligence, because children who are better able to manage their emotions are better able to manage themselves in general. But IQ also measures environmental stress, since children who have experienced more stressful environments perform worse on IQ tests.
Finally, in Mischel's original sample, the children were all from families who either worked at Stanford or were grad students, so they were all, according to Mischel himself, from a "highly intelligent subsection of the population." At the very least, they were probably from uniformly privileged backgrounds. And yet even within this cohort, there were significant differences in outcome -- which would be unlikely to come just from intelligence, since all of these kids would have scored much higher than average on IQ tests. The differences certainly could have resulted from different levels of stress in the home, however.
Can we generalize about this test given that the original population studied was so privileged?
No, we can't. Stephanie Carlson, a University of Minnesota psychologist who is one of many academics who has replicated the test, says that the next challenge "will be to take the marshmallow test into more diverse communities and understand better if it has the same predictive power in kids who are not white, affluent and from well-educated families."
Mischel did these studies in the 1960's. Are the academics who are replicating the study getting the same results?
Basically, but they are finding differences in how long kids today can wait for the treat, compared to children in the 1960s. It turns out that children today -- wait for it -- have MORE self control!
In Mischel's first round of experiments, about one third of the children were able to wait the maximum time, which was ten minutes. Another third tried various strategies to delay and then ate the treat within six minutes. The final third ate the treat in the first half minute, without trying to wait. By contrast, in Stephanie Carlson's 2002-2012 studies, only about 12% ate the treat in the first 30 seconds and almost 60% of the children were able to wait the full 10 minutes. Other studies support this trend of children demonstrating more self-regulation (as measured by this test) today than in previous years.
How come French kids are better at the Marshmallow test?
Actually, they aren't. You may have read about the marshmallow test in the book Bringing Up Bébé, where Pam Druckerman quotes Walter Mischel, the
originator of the Marshmallow test, as support for her conclusion that Parisians, beginning when they're children, have more self control than Americans.
But Mischel didn't actually test French children, and the Marshmallow test doesn't actually support Druckerman's conclusions about how kids develop
self control. Druckerman claims that self-control comes from the French practice of training kids to wait for attention and follow rigid schedules,
but there's no evidence of that these factors develop self-control or self regulation. In fact, there's lots of evidence that other factors are what help kids develop self-regulation. Mischel himself ascribed self-control
to "the ability to regulate hot emotions" which has nothing to do with being taught to wait for attention; in fact, quite the opposite -- self regulation
develops more quickly when parents are more responsive. We'll talk more about this in the next post.