A four year old boy sits alone at the table. On it sits a large marshmallow. Minutes earlier, the experimenter told the boy that he had to leave the room. If the boy waited to eat the marshmallow until the experimenter came back, the boy would get two. What the child didn’t know was that hidden cameras were rolling. As the minutes wore on, the boy started squirming in his seat as he salivated at the prize. Finally, the wait was too much. He snatched the marshmallow up and shoved it into his mouth.
The above depiction characterizes an illustration of what has since been termed the Stanford Marshmallow study. These preschoolers were followed into adulthood to determine just how much self-control would predict important outcomes years later. Self-control is defined as skills related to self-discipline, delayed gratification, and perseverance. The findings were stunning. The longer children waited for the two marshmallows, the more likely they were to be rated by their parents as being more attentive, competent, organized, self-motivated, optimistic, and intelligent. Perhaps the most stunning finding was the significant correlation between the number of seconds a 4-year-old took to grab the marshmallow and their SAT scores. Those who did not grab the marshmallow scored on average 200 points higher than those who did. Even those who waited longer generally scored higher, even if they still ended up giving into temptation. Followed as adults, they had more successful marriages, better health, greater occupational satisfaction, and better financial habits. Those same 4-year-old children could quickly be taught strategies to delay their gratification. This time, researchers used pretzels as the lure. Children who were taught to think about the abstract characteristics of the pretzel (e.g., “It’s like a thin, brown branch”) were able to delay eating it on average more than eight minutes longer than when they were told think about its arousing qualities (e.g., crunchy, salty taste).
Other studies have noted similar findings. A large study tracking children from birth to 32-years of age published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 found that three factors in at preschool age significantly predicted many adult outcomes: self-control, IQ, and socioeconomic status (SES). A child’s self-control at the age of three, regardless of their IQ and SES, was significantly associated with the following at age thirty-two: physical health, substance dependence, financial status/habits, single- vs. two- parent rearing, and likelihood of criminal conviction. Of the three factors, only self-control has been shown to be readily changeable over the long-term. Even more, it isn’t just that poor self-control leads to negative outcomes; those with superior self-control demonstrate much better outcomes than the general public. For those whose self-control improves as they grow older, findings indicate that outcomes also improve. This and similar research on their own outcomes led Head Start programs to shift much of their program focus from academic skills to social-emotional abilities that tie directly into self-control.
As parents of young children, we feel pressure to make sure that our children learn early concepts such as colors, letters, and numbers. Advertisers routinely market products to parents of even the youngest children which supposedly promote cutting edge, electronic approaches to teaching these skills. Not only does the research not support that these are necessarily better (and are sometimes worse) than the conventional methods of direct, real life instruction, they also seem to be hugely lacking in one area shown to be more important than early development of these skills. Simply put, “Who is going to teach my kid to not take and eat the entire bag of M & M’s in the cabinet?”
The answer of course is that it must first be us as parents. But make no mistake. Although self-control might be the most important skill that we as parents can influence in our kids, it is also the one that requires the most work. Many deterrents to its development exist in our own home. But as the years progress, we will be glad we pursued its cause. So will they.