Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Research to Real World: Wait! Don’t Eat That Marshmallow
Self-regulation in preschoolers

by Jessica Beer, Ph.D.

February 01, 2014

Picture this…you give your preschooler one marshmallow and tell her she can eat it now, but if she can wait until you return, then you will give her two marshmallows. Does she gobble up the single marshmallow or does she wait? How long will she wait?

This experiment was first done in the ‘70’s at Stanford with four-year-olds to measure delayed gratification – now better known as self-regulation skills. You know what it looks like when your child has a tough time self-regulating: he or she can’t stay in the chair at dinner, runs across the street without looking, or grabs toys away from friends.

A 10-year follow-up of the children in the marshmallow study showed that the amount of time a child could wait as a preschooler was associated with coping skills, social competence and academic performance during adolescence. Children who were able to wait longer were rated by their parents as more intelligent, more able to resist temptation, more likely to show self-control in frustrating situations, more able to concentrate and had higher SAT scores as adolescents compared to children with shorter wait times. A 30-year follow-up showed children who were able to wait longer as preschoolers had lower Body Mass Index as adults than shorter waiters.

So not eating a marshmallow at age four means you don’t have pay for those expensive SAT prep courses and your kid won’t be overweight in his 30’s?

Yikes, that’s a lot of pressure for a parent! And what if your child eats the marshmallow? What if your ten-year-old still struggles with self-regulation? Is it too late? Is she doomed? Should you go ahead and take that trip to Italy on her college savings?

Rest easy, there’s more to the story.

A group of researchers at the University of Rochester tweaked the marshmallow experiment to show that self-regulatory skills are not set in stone, but are malleable and influenced by everyday experiences children have with adults. Before children participated in the marshmallow task they were put in a situation where the experimenter was either reliable (told the child she would be back shortly with more crayons and she was) or unreliable (told the child she would be back shortly with more crayons but returned to explain she didn’t have any more crayons). Children who experienced the reliable situation waited 12 minutes; children in the unreliable situation waited 3 minutes on average. So the child’s self-regulatory skills were influenced by her beliefs about the experimenter based on their brief history. “This lady didn’t come back with more crayons like she said she would, so why should I wait for her to bring me two marshmallows? I’m going to eat this marshmallow while I can.”

The take home message is that self-control is shaped by everyday interactions between parents and children that span a lifetime. As parents of a child who might struggle with self-control, this is good news…what we do matters. We can do our best to be reliable at home with daily routines and our follow-up and consequences for good and bad choices our kids make. We model, teach and practice self-control as best we can. I like to think that all the effort– albeit imperfect – that goes into following through with my own rules (homework before play) and rewards (extra screen time) might make a difference when the stakes are higher later in life (choosing not to answer that text while driving).

If you want a good laugh, go to YouTube and enter “very tempting marshmallow test” to watch what kids did during the waiting period of the marshmallow task.

Developmental psychologist and co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, Jessica Beer combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life.