In the late 1960s, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel carried out a series of tests on children aged four and five that collectively became known as the Marshmallow Test. The test involved putting a child in a room and placing a marshmallow in front of them. The researcher then told the child that he was going to leave the room, and when he came back, if the marshmallow was uneaten, the child could have another marshmallow. Some children managed to hold back, others scoffed the treat as soon as the researcher’s back was turned.
Those who master the art of delaying gratification when pursuing a goal will generally be more successful than those who don’t.
The same children were tracked over the next 40 years of their lives. It turned out that the children who resisted the marshmallow at age four or five tended to do better than their marshmallow-grabbing peers in just about every aspect of life, from achieving higher SAT scores to having lower body mass indexes. Researchers view this as evidence that being able to delay gratification when pursuing a goal contributes to success.
Here are some games and tips to help teach children to delay gratification and instead work towards goals and rewards.
1. Get your children to do treasure huntsIn a treasure hunt, your child will follow a series of clues towards a prize. The clues build on each other – there’s no instant way to get to the goal. This will teach your younger children that through hard work, they can gain rewards. Make the complexity of the clues and hiding place age appropriate, so it is not too frustrating, but do let your child struggle a bit, to think about the clues and to search properly, rather than stepping in too quickly with your help.
2. Give them pocket money but help them set goals Make certain rules about how your children can spend their pocket money (for instance, not on a bag of marshmallows!), and help them to set savings goals for things that they really want. You can even incentivise them by offering to double their savings when they get halfway – or some such reward.
3. Ban interruption, but help them to see that an end is in sight All children interrupt because they have a sense of urgency about what’s going on in their little universes. They want your attention now! Teaching them not to interrupt is more than just teaching good manners. It’s teaching them delayed gratification – to wait for what they want.
4. Give them an insight into how their anger reduces over time Children (and many adults) don’t have the insight to realise that anger will pass or that things will look better the next day. By delaying an angry reaction, there is often a better outcome. Help your child to develop this awareness by actively distracting them in the moment of their anger (“Let’s make a sandwich and then we’ll talk about it.”), and then pointing out how much better they feel about things later on.
5. Help them to improve in increments If your child has a bad habit they would like to break or a new habit they would like to instil, help them to set a goal and then work at getting there in increments. This can be applied to beating their own time at running (time them every week), tidying their room (start with putting laundry in the basket for a week, then add making their bed) or reading a certain number of pages each night. The point is not necessarily the end result (although that’s great too), but that they see improvements through daily efforts.
6.Teach them how to plan It is very easy (and convenient) to micro-manage your child’s life, but you’re not doing them any favours in the long term. Rather teach them the skills of planning and scheduling. Planning shows children the path towards a desired goal and gives them the satisfaction of seeing their plan come together. For example, with a school project, show them how much time they have to allocate to each aspect of the work and help them to count the days back from the deadline. This shows them that even when they are delaying gratification for a distant future goal, they will have saved themselves the stress of a late-night on the eve of project hand-in.
7. Show them how to prioritise homework for stress-free fun later Help your child to set up systems for getting homework out of the way earlier in the day so that they can enjoy family, social and fun time later. Let them see the benefits of their hard work by making time to do fun things with them if their homework is done early. And of course, point out that their greatest reward is the positive feedback they get from their teacher on homework or projects done well.
8. Lead by example It’s all well and good teaching your child to delay gratification, but the lesson will only stick if you do the same in your own life. As adults, we overspend, cheat on our diets and indulge ourselves regularly. If this is the main message we transmit to our children, they think that it’s OK to bend the rules and get what you want right away, rather than working towards a goal. Of course, it’s still fine to have fun sometimes, but rather emphasise all the ways in which you are saving and prioritising every day so that your children learn to do the same.
Don’t try this at home!Of course, the first thing that any parent wants to do when they’ve read about the Marshmallow Test is try it on their own children. While there’s no harm in seeing how your child will behave, remember that the original test was conducted in a scientifically controlled environment by researchers, so don’t be discouraged if your child guzzles the marshmallow and then demands another one.
Children are naturally impulsive creatures, and while the test suggests that there are those with an innate sense of self-control, it is also entirely possible to develop this characteristic using approaches like those outlined in this blog post.