Would Your Kid Pass the Marshmallow Test? Depends on Your Parenting Style

The marshmallow test is a behavior experiment about self-control, temptation and delayed gratification. And most Western children fail it. . Lopolo/Shutterstock

You've heard of the marshmallow test, right? It's a behavior experiment on temptation and delayed gratification that was first given to children in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.

Basically a young child sits in a room and a researcher puts a marshmallow on a plate in front of him. The child is told that he will be left alone in the room for 10 to 15 minutes. If he waits for the researcher to come back, he'll get a second marshmallow to eat. If he eats the marshmallow before that, he will get no second treat. Of the 600 children who participated in the study, only about a third of them waited long enough to get the second treat.

Cut to 30 years later, and a long-term study concluded that the children who were able to delay gratification were more likely to have higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, less likelihood of obesity, lower stress levels and many more positives of that nature.

Since it originated, the marshmallow test has, as The Atlantic reports, permeated popular culture. "There are 'Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!' T-shirts and "Sesame Street" episodes in which Cookie Monster learns delayed gratification so he can join the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Investment companies have used the Marshmallow Test to encourage retirement planning."

A cultural shift

Researchers knew the test results varied by age, with older children showing more willpower than younger ones. But until recently, they didn't know that such efforts in self-control varied by culture, as the test had been performed on mostly (if not only) Western children.

A new study published in the journal Child Development found that when the same test was presented to children of the Nso people in Cameroon, researchers saw very different results. About 70 percent of the children tested were able to wait for the second treat.

The difference is a cultural one. Study authors wrote that the Nso "mothers’ focus on hierarchical relational socialization goals and responsive control seems to support children's delay-of-gratification performance more than ... middle-class mothers’ emphasis on psychological autonomous socialization goals and sensitive, child-centered parenting."

In other words, mothers in Cameroon had a more authoritative parenting style where children were taught to respect their elders, whereas Western parenting puts more of an emphasis on letting a child express himself more independently. The study authors noted the same results were true in China, home of the "tiger mom," where children often are raised under authoritative parenting styles.

This point about how children view authority figures is at the center of criticism against the marshmallow test: Is it really a test of self-control, or is it more a test of how much children trust the adult giving the test? A University of Rochester study found that children who trusted the second treat would truly materialize were four times as likely to wait for it.

How do you teach self control?

Despite what you believe the marshmallow test may reveal about children, there's no doubt that self-control is a valuable skill to have. So how can we Western parents teach our kids to delay gratification, especially with the instantaneous nature of the digital world?

Education and child development experts have these suggestions for parents of young children. And keep in mind that most children don't develop impulse control until grade school.

1. Take a time-out. This goes for children of all ages. Tiny tots may need a time out in their crib or confined to a chair. Older kids may need to be encouraged to remove themselves from the source of the temptation or frustration.

2. Set clear expectations. This is particularly important if your child will have to wait for something or do something he may not want to do.

3. Keep instructions simple. Educational foundation Edutopia offers these examples: “Reading time is quiet time.” “Take turns with favorite toys.” “Now is the time to listen and follow directions.” Remind children when it's time to follow your directions.

4. Set routines. "Young children may not be able to tell time, but they do become accustomed to the cadence of a regular schedule. When they know that story time will be followed by outdoor play, active children may be more able to sit quietly while their teacher reads," according to Edutopia.

5. Be the role model. As Laura Markham Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today, "When parents can't manage their own emotions, ... this handicaps the child in learning to soothe his own upsets, which makes it difficult for him to control his emotions or behavior. So the most important thing you can do to help your child learn self-control is probably to regulate your own emotions so you can stay calm and compassionate with your child."

6. Provide positive reinforcement. Praise your child when he doesn't lose control in frustrating situations, and if he's in the midst of losing control, talk him down with soothing, positive words. That way, he's creating the brain pathways to talk through difficult situations in the future, Markham writes.

7. Make them wait, but in a calm and age-appropriate way. Kids who practice waiting learn to tolerate it and to trust that waiting is worth it. "But if the parent makes the child wait for longer than she's developmentally able, her anxiety about getting her needs met overwhelms her and she learns she has to scream to get what she wants, rather than learning self control. And if the parent is yelling at the child to wait, the child learns that it's an emergency, which sabotages her attempts at self-control," according to Markham. Instead, parents should patiently help a child overcome the anxiety of waiting by teaching the ability of self-distraction — an important strategy for kids who passed the marshmallow test.

As Michel once explained to NPR, the world may have misinterpreted his original test by focusing too closely on self-control and not enough on self-determination, but there's still an upside:

"People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations, to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves," Mischel said.
Nearly fifty years after the publication of his early iconic work, Mischel was still on the forefront of correcting the entrenched orthodoxy of static personalities, as well as the psych myth that his famous study had become. In 2014, he wrote The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.
"What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings, to not be the victims of their biographies — not their biological biographies, not their social biographies," he said. "And to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think."