Want to Help Your Children Succeed? Teach Them to Wait for the Marshmallow.

The small room was nearly empty. In it sat a square wooden table, and a plain wooden chair. On the chair sat a four-year-old boy, feet swinging, forehead resting on his arms, face hidden. He was singing softly to himself, trying to distract himself from what sat on the table in front of him; a single, sweet, square, white, tasty marshmallow.

He was part of an experiment that involved dozens of four year olds, and it went like this. The children were brought, one at a time, into the empty room where they saw the marshmallow. Then they were told the experimenter had to leave and would be back in a few minutes. They could eat the marshmallow now, or, if they could wait for him to return, they could have two marshmallows when he came back.

As you might imagine, some of the children ate the marshmallow right away, but some of the children were able to wait as long as 20 minutes, in an empty room, to receive their reward of two marshmallows. Some would turn the chair around and face away from the table. Some would close their eyes, tell themselves stories and sing to themselves.

They could wait. They had the capacity to delay immediate gratification to receive a greater reward at a later time.

Can you do that?

The children in the Marshmallow Study were interviewed again upon high school graduation, and the ability to delay gratification proved to be a better predictor of academic successes than I.Q. or S.A.T. test scores!

The idea of delaying gratification can come in many forms. We go to work now, so we can buy groceries later. We forgo the cake now, to avoid a heart attack later. We study now, so we can get a satisfying job later.

So it seems as if a good way to help children succeed is to help them learn to delay gratification. Clearly; watching TV, chatting on the internet, or playing video games is more interesting right now than reading that book for English or writing that Social Studies paper, so having actual discussions about how these things may be of benefit in the future is important. It’s common for students to point out that school has little relevance to real life, and that may be, but doing well in school IS relevant in one regard; it shows that the graduate has enough self-discipline to jump through the hoops. It shows future employers of the really interesting, highly sought after jobs that this person has the strength of will it takes to postpone immediate satisfaction for a larger goal. And in a competitive market, those are exactly the people we want to pay large sums of money to do the fun work.

It’s like Sam Ewing said.

“Success has a simple formula: do your best, and people may like it.”