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Masters in parenting series

The most important skill to teach your child.

What do you think it would be? How to read or do math, maybe shoot a basketball or throw a football. While all those things are important, there is something that is an important predictor of future success that has nothing to do with any of these.

The study

The study takes place in a nursery school at Stanford University by Walter Mischel among 600 4-6 year olds. The children were placed in a room with a marshmallow on a table in front of them. The instructions were simple: Wait 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow and you get a second one to eat as well. There were a few kids who ate the marshmallow as soon as the instructor left the room.  

There were others who were noted to “cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray, others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.”

I found this recreation of the test on: YouTube. It’s not perfect and I can’t even find where it was done, but I just thought it was a good example of the types of reactions the kids might have displayed. Disregard the statements at the end because I think they are over-simplifications of what Mischel was trying to say.

What happened in Mischel’s study? Very few of the children ate the marshmallow right after the researcher left the room. Those who stayed, developed all kinds of strategies to keep themselves from eating before they got their second reward.

About 1/3 of the subjects were able to wait the full 15 minutes and get both marshmallows.Mischel postulated that the ability to wait showed that the children had an ability to perform delayed gratification.The interesting thing comes into play later.  

In follow-up studies of the original subjects, they came back and compared the two groups (those who were able to wait and those whowere not).  Some of the following differences were noted: they were described by their parents as more competent and (with a small sample size) they had improved SAT scores.

The study isn’t perfect and anyone who has the time to do it can poke holes in the methodology. Some recent studies have shown that  the children’s ability to wait might have to do more with their trust in the experimenter to actually bring back the second marshmallow than their ability to delay gratification.

The takeaways

Either way, I think there are some takeaways from the research.

1. True success is often dependent upon delayed gratification. Many things that are really desirable in life take time and effort to accomplish. Some people are fortunate and are able to stumble into easy money but that is more rare than the norm.

2. Delayed gratification may be easier for some than others, but the overall tendency for humans is to seek instant gratification.

3. Delayed gratification can be taught and strengthened in our children.

Developing your children's ability

So what are some things we can do to help develop our children’s ability for delayed gratification?

1. Create opportunities to exercise it. Similar to the experiment, offer them a reward now or a bigger reward later.

2. Use chores and an allowance. Start a spend NOW and a spend LATER jar. The spend now jar can be used to purchase small items. Our 4 year old spends almost all of his on gum-balls. The spend later jar can be saved up in order to purchase something bigger.

3. Use steps to complete a task. Tell your children you are going to make a card for mom or dad. Don’t just hand them a few things and let them go for it. Sit down with them and create a list of the tasks that need to be completed: gathering supplies, writing message, coloring, stickering. Don’t let them move to the next task until they have completely finished the previous one.  

Show them the quality of their work at the end based on doing it in this way. Obviously, teaching your child delayed gratification is not the only thing you need to do in order to help them succeed and teaching them does not guardsmen success.  However, it does seem like an important skill that we all could use a little work on, including our kids.

About the author

Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.

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