Marshmallows, Cookies and Kids

by Sahadev Komaragiri



Who would believe that a simple test involving a single marshmallow or a single cookie can determine the future of a child? Here is how you can test your own child. Please note that your child can be tested better if it is done by someone else other than you.

Put the child in a closed room with nothing else but a table and a chair. Offer the child a cookie or a marshmallow or something that they really like and haven’t consumed a delicacy of that kind in more than ten days. Place it in front of them on a small plate. Tell them that they can have it right away or wait for an unspecified amount of time and get an additional piece as a reward for waiting. What do you think will happen?

To see how it works in a real test environment, please watch this video.

An experiment like this was conducted in the year 1968 by researchers at Stanford University on about 653 kids(subjects). The kids were 4 or 5 years of age. Here are some of the findings:

  • Average wait time for most of the kids is under 3 minutes. Some did not wait at all.
  • About 30% of them delayed their gratification for over 15 minutes until the researcher returned. They somehow found a way to resist their temptation.

What exactly is being measured in this test? Will the child figure out a way to earn a second serving? Can they do it by making the situation work for them? Some pretended that their favorite item was not there and some turned away from it. The desire to have a second one is there but they were successful in deflecting it for the time being.

One of the researchers tracked many of the subjects of this experiment into their thirties and later. Here are some of the findings:

  • Low delayers(less than 30 seconds) seemed to have more behavioral problems, got low S.A.T scores, often had troubles maintaining friendships and have a significantly higher body mass index.
  • The child who could wait fifteen minutes(high delayer) had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

I can think of two crucial abilities that determine the future of a child. One, delayed gratification and two, self control. A child who has good control over self certainly has good control over his/her academic performance, relationships, ability to cope with problems, capacity to think and plan ahead and the ability to make better choices in life.

How does self control and delayed gratification help?

  • A high delayer will somehow find a way to avoid watching TV and focus on the upcoming test. Of course a parent can influence this decision one way or the other!
  • They will somehow find ways to save for retirement and turn away from addictions such as alcoholism and other social temptations. A parent can and should help in finding the right friend circle.
  • A high delayer is more likely to carefully plan a task and execute it to its conclusion without dropping it off due to small failures or disappointments. As a parent one must attempt to prop up the child whenever they are down (but don’t make it a habit for them to look for a prop up. Life doesn’t work that way!)

Are these skills teachable or are they just part of their gene capacity? Can schools teach these skills? Yes, these skills are teachable, but the schools and the teaching fraternity must be equipped to teach these skills. You as a parent must be convinced that these skills are important and you must play your own part in getting your child to learn these skills. For a child these are the life skills that are more important than study of science or math.

We must understand that a reward for a good behavior has its own place. The reward must be in proportion to the effort. After a reward is handed out, the child must be challenged to think beyond rewards and allowed to imagine the intangible benefits of a certain behavior.

All said and done a parent must spend adequate time with the child in the formative years and beyond.


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