The Marshmallow Test; Development of Self Restraint

by Moshe Shtuhl, Ph.D.

Imagine giving a 4-year-old a marshmallow, then explaining that you must leave the room to do some errands. You tell her that if she waits to eat the marshmallow until you return, you will give her a second one. Visualize how hard she must struggle against the urge to have a mouthful of yummy marshmallow immediately. It is quite funny and endearing to see those young children trying to overcome to urge to devour that marshmallow, knowing that there will be a reward for waiting; some hold the marshmallow, open their mouth but then quickly put the marshmallow down. Some try to distract themselves looking at other things, singing or talking to themselves-maybe telling themselves that they need to wait just a little bit longer. For others, it is just too hard and they eat the marshmallow (see an online videoshowing the children in this research).

This arduous task is part of a fascinating study that has been replicated several times. This is a study that tells more than scores of other studies about an important skill essential for life success; the ability to control impulses and urges to gain future rewards.

When the children who participated in the “marshmallow test” were reexamined at the age of eighteen-dramatic findings emerged. On a variety of scales of social, emotional and well being, those who waited to eat their marshmallows as 4 year olds did much better than those who did not wait . Even the SAT scores of those who waited were very significantly higher than those who did not wait. In fact whether a child waited was found to have a much higher predictability for future success then IQ scores.

Learning to manage urges and feelings is a lifelong task and is never really fait accompli (mission accomplished). It is rather a complex developmental process that begins at an early age and, if learned early, the study points out, can provide a significant head start for the child. The child learns to exercise self-control, reason and thoughtfulness where before, raw feelings and immediacy dominated.

Translating these findings to parental advice, however, needs to be approached with caution as one runs the risk of coming up with conclusions that are too simplistic and therefore erroneous.

On the one hand, it seems clear that setting limits and requiring from kids to exercise self restraint is essential for healthy development. When setting limits for your child (for example, not allowing her to grab a chocolate bar from the store shelf, or hit her brother), be firm and clear. Firm and clear limits help children, over time, to develop self-discipline. At the same time the findings do not mean that parents should over emphasize presenting children with excessive frustration–a “waiting school” of sort. While providing opportunities for children to “practice” self-restraint is clearly important, the developmental dance that enables children to develop self-restrain is a complex dance that requires other essential ingredients.

Research and clinical experience with families of young children have taught us about those ingredients, here are a few important ones;

  • We all know that the younger the child the less able he is to contain his feelings and needs. Furthermore, for some children, either because they experience life intensely or because inhibiting themselves does not come as easily for them (such as children with attention challenges), it is especially hard to wait or contain their urges. Having too high expectations (like waiting for a long time for food in a restaurant) sets all of you up to a failure. For the long-term development of the child, it is much better to have lower expectations that the child can regularly fulfill rather than have higher expectations that the child typically does not meet.
  • Parenting is hard work that can be quite exhausting. Parents often feel overwhelmed by worry, fatigue, anger and frustration. As a consequence it is at time hard for parents to control their own tempers. One of the most important ingredients for children to develop self-restraint is developing emotional regulation; the ability to control and modulate feelings and not get overwhelmed by them. When parents arerelatively calm and collected (no need for perfection here) then children learn to regulate their own feelings. This happens through observation and by the “contagion effect”-positive and negative emotions are “contagious”; when a child is with a calmer person she becomes collected and therefore better able to exercise self restraint. This reinforces the point we often make to parents that they need to take care of their own needs for rest and rejuvenation because everybody is benefitting from this parental self-care.
  • Saying “no” to children is not enough. Help your child develop thoughtfulness by helping him put his wishes and feelings into words. Be interested in his explanations and arguments even if they don’t convince you to change your mind. This way you will facilitate your child’s evolving emotional thinking-a foundation of self-restraint. Your child’s evolving ability to think about feelings-his and others-is your most important ally in teaching him to use reason when emotion and urges erupt.
  • Remember that setting limits for your child is an act of caring. While saying “no” you can still demonstrate your love by being empathic to his feelings as distinct from agreeing to his wishes. Empathizing with your child’s rage at her playmate for taking a toy away from her will not weaken the effect of your stern message that kicking in retaliation is unacceptable. On the contrary, feeling understood will be of tremendous help as she thinks through her feelings and look for more constructive reactions.