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How Valid is that Marshmallow Test With Children?

No one hauled my children into a room and promised them a second marshmallow if they didn’t immediately eat the first one.

You know that iconic Stanford experiment that supposedly measured childhood willpower by telling the test subjects how eating the marshmallow was okay? BUT if they waited twenty minutes without eating this treat, they could get a second treat.

Those original 1960s test subjects who held out for two small rewards are now admired and successful pillars of their respective communities, while the ones who stuffed the white confection in their mouth are the bottom feeders of society.

I’m paraphrasing here.

Some young parents believe they could train their children to forego all temptations.

I was one of those parents. I took this delayed gratification test seriously. I was determined that if anyone ever did haul my kids into a room for a similar experiment, they would quickly understand the enormous effect eating the marshmallow would have on their entire life. And, of course, they would not partake.

“No, we aren’t going to eat the breadsticks in the car while driving home from the pizza place,” I told them as the aroma filled the small space. “There are benefits to delayed gratification.”

“They’ll be cold when we get home,” one kid would say.

“How are cold breadsticks beneficial?” another would ask.

If I told them about the marshmallow experiment and the success discovered by those who waited for the second marshmallow, a smart-aleck from the back would say, “Well, there won’t be more breadsticks when we get home. Now, will there be? And the ones we have will be cold.”

Every one of my children would have reacted differently if Stanford scientists had placed them in a room with a table, a chair, and a marshmallow.

  • My oldest, a rather tactile child, would have massaged the marshmallow between her thumb and forefingers until the sugar strung out like pulling taffy. The second marshmallow would have arrived before she was through playing with the first. She would have added the additional bulk to her sticky mess and kept kneading.

  • Our oldest son would have popped the treat into his mouth, confident in his ability to persuade the scientists that he still deserved a second marshmallow and maybe even a third.

  • The third child would probably eat the marshmallow immediately and then explain how he only wanted one in the first place.

  • The fourth in line wouldn’t have lowered himself to be part of your stupid experiment. “Really?” he would say as if he couldn’t believe how obtuse you were thinking someone like him was going to be a lab rat. “Find someone else.” And you would know by his tone that he has no respect for whomever you found.

  • Our last child would never have eaten the marshmallow. In fact, she would still be holding on to the second treat just in case she or someone else needed them in the future.

Your children aren’t blank slates.

They are a mosaic of inherited traits from generations combined with environmental influences.

Appreciate the beauty of mosaic.

AND take comfort in the fact a replication study found no statistical correlations to delayed gratification after controlling for socioeconomic factors.