My oldest son just turned four so when I recently read “The Great Marshmallow Experiment,” it spoke to me. Actually, it screamed: “Don’t give in to all his demands!” The study revealed that strong willpower in preschoolers predicts future success.
Every parent has heard the “I want it now!” chants and there are times when giving in seems like the easiest and the most efficient decision. Who wants a temper tantrum in a super market line when giving him that Snickers bar will get you out and to your car in a few minutes? Or who wants those mind puncturing wails for cartoons at mealtimes, when a simple flick of the remote can create peace. Well, routinely giving in apparently has long term consequences.
In 1972, Stanford researchers brought a bunch of four year-old kids into a room and handed them a marshmallow each. The deal was this, they could eat it right away or wait a few minutes and receive an extra marshmallow. The researchers then left and let agony fill the room.
The scientists rubbed their hands together and gave evil laughs (made up detail!) as they watched the torment behind a two-way mirror to keep track of each kid and their self-control. Seventy percent succumbed to temptation while thirty percent managed to control their urges.
The researchers followed these same kids into their high school years and found something amazing. From The Power of Habit:
They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs. If you knew how to avoid the temptation of a marshmallow as a preschooler, it seemed, you also knew how to get yourself to class on time and finish your homework once you got older, as well as how to make friends and resist peer pressure. It was as if the marshmallow-ignoring kids had self-regulatory skills that gave them an advantage throughout their lives.
So our kids might grow into strong willed teenagers that stay home on weekends to study or say no to their coke snorting classmates, if we resist our temptation to make our lives a little easier now. At least, it will give them a better chance.