There is a famous study by Mischel, often called the Marshmallow experiment, where a researcher put 4 year olds alone in a room with a treat (e.g. marshmallow, cookie, pretzel). They were told that they could eat it now, or if they could wait 15 minutes then they could have a second treat. 30% were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes… It clearly took them a great deal of willpower to do so – 15 minutes is a VERY long time when you’re four, and there’s a tasty treat right in front of you. [note: on YouTube, if you search for marshmallow experiment, you’ll find entertaining videos of the ways children talk themselves into waiting to eat one. For example: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzUS9N5aeFs)
Follow-up studies of those children when they reached their teen years found that the ones who could wait to eat the marshmallow were: more assertive, healthier, got better grades, and scored over 200 points higher on the SAT on average.
So, for years, this was touted as proof that the ability to control one’s impulses and delay gratification was one of the most essential skills a child can have for life success. And I do agree that it’s important!
But… there’s more to the story.
In a study published in 2012, children were given a piece of paper and a jar of used crayons. The researcher said she would be back soon with better art materials if they could wait. Half of the children (the “reliable condition” group) received better art materials as promised. But for the other half (unreliable), the researcher returned, apologized that there were not better materials available, and encouraged the child to use the old crayons. THEN they administered the marshmallow test to these children. Children in the reliable situation waited an average of 12 minutes. (64% waited the full 15 minutes) Children in the unreliable situation, who had been shown that the researcher didn’t keep her promises, waited an average of only 3 minutes! (Only 1 of the 14, or 7% of the subjects, could wait the full 15 minutes.)
This suggests that children are better at self-control, and at waiting for gratification, if they can trust the people in their environment. When parents respond consistently to their children, and are reliable about keeping their promises, it helps their child learn that good things come to those who wait and those who work hard at controlling their impulse for the quick fix and wait for a more long-term reward.
Related articles: www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-17/what-does-the-marshmallow-test-actually-test and