The marshmallow experiment has turned forty years old. The most famous study about willpower has had countless imitations, like this one:
The original test was carried out by Walter Mischel with four year-old children and it was very simple: the child was offered a marshmallow which he could eat straight away, or the possibility of eating two if he waited for him to come back from an errand 15 minutes later. Nearly all the kids said they were going to wait. Walter then gave them another option: if they chose to, they could ring a bell and he would come back and let them eat the first one (although they would lose the possibility of eating the second marshmallow). Most of them said that it wouldn’t be necessary; they would wait.
But of course, we all know. Kids and sweets. Most of them started ringing the bell 30 seconds later.
Walter has been following-up on these same kids for 40 years. The result is fascinating. Those who had waited for longer have had better results in school and at work, are more capable of overcoming stressful situations, have less temperamental issues, and in general, have had more success in life. The kids who had waited for less than a minute have had numerous difficulties, both in education and at home.
By analysing the behaviour of every child, Walter observed that the ones who waited the most didn’t remain next to the marshmallow, staring with desire. Instead they invented distraction tactics (they closed their eyes, stood up and moved to another spot, sung…) to avoid succumbing before the “hot stimulus” (in this case, the marshmallow).
With this, he had discovered that the key when dealing with stress is using your imagination and creativity to think about something else; what many of us parents constantly repeat to our children.
Today’s kids live in a world where everything is immediate. Results are obtained with a click of a button. And they don’t know how to wait. However, adult life is filled with delays (a job opportunity that doesn’t arrive, the phone that doesn’t ring…) and if we don’t teach them from now on to have patience, we will be creating adults that are frustrated, and almost surely, unsatisfied.
A recurrent topic that comes up during my family visits is “my son wants everything and he wants it now”. Inventing games and creating tactics to delay gratification is something we should all do at home. For example, during this time of year a classic answer to a child’s toy wishes is “well, write a letter to Santa”. It’s a fantastic idea but, what happens after Christmas?
The marshmallow test teaches us that creativity and willpower are fundamental abilities in life. And accompanying our children throughout delays can, and should, be a fantastic game. At times, as the kids from the video teach us, it’s enough to close your eyes and sing. Let’s do that with them.