Why Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?

Photography: Victoria Gloria Photography

By Dr Laura Markham

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” – Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel died in September 2018 at the age of 88, so I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about the marshmallow test, Mischel’s most famous research. Today, I’ll describe the marshmallow test and why it’s useful for every parent to understand. In my next post, we’ll explore how children actually develop self-control. 

What does the marshmallow test have to do with self-control? Walter Mischel was a Stanford professor and researcher who was interested in how children learn the skills to delay gratification and achieve their goals. What he found is that self-control has a lot to do with managing emotions.

Mischel found that when young children are offered a choice between one or two treats they like, such as marshmallows or cookies, they always choose two. Mischel then told the children in his studies, “Here is one treat on this plate, but look — there are additional treats in this tin. I need to leave the room for a few minutes. If you don’t eat this treat while I’m gone, when I come back I will give you an additional treat from the tin. If you can’t wait to eat this one, that’s fine, but you won’t get a second treat. If you can wait, then when I come back, I will give you the second treat as well as this one.”

Virtually all toddlers will eat the first treat as soon as the researcher leaves the room. They can’t wait, no matter how much they want the second treat, for the same reason they can’t always follow your rules at home. They may very much want to, but their brain development isn’t sufficient for them to control their own impulses, even to meet a goal that is important to them.

Even once they’re preschoolers, most kids — 70% — can’t control their impulses enough to avoid eating the first treat, no matter how much they also want the second one.

I admit that when I first heard about this experiment I thought it was a bit cruel, and I wondered why we read so much into it. After all, what if the child doesn’t like marshmallows, or doesn’t WANT the second cookie? And who cares if they can resist eating it?

But here’s the thing. Once we find a treat the child likes, virtually all young children want the second treat, so the question becomes whether the child can manage his impulses in order to meet his own goals. The treat experiment is interesting because it shows us whether the child has developed his rational frontal cortex sufficiently to regulate his emotions, his anxiety about getting the treat, and his impulses. This huge accomplishment is an indicator of the child’s emerging self-mastery, which allows him, in turn, to master the world. (Here’s an in-depth article from the New Yorker on this experiment.) 

Remember, 30% of preschoolers CAN control themselves enough to not eat the treat. What can we learn from them?

Studies show that these four-year-olds do better throughout school, better with peers, and are rated by parents as more cooperative. They’re better at concentrating, at screening out distractions. As they grow, they’re more competent, confident, and happier. They even score an average of 200 points higher on their SATS, which isn’t really surprising given that they’re higher-achieving students and better at regulating their own anxiety. In fact, the marshmallow test predicts academic achievement better than IQ does. 

“The more seconds they waited at age 4 or 5, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive function in adolescence,” Mischel wrote in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

Forty years later the kids who succeeded at managing their impulses in the face of temptation are thinner, healthier, wealthier and more accomplished. But what matters to me is that they’re happier. Which isn’t so surprising, given that their lives work better. Clearly, there’s something important here for all parents to understand.

The marshmallow test isn’t just about the ability to “delay gratification,” as it is often described. And it isn’t about “self-discipline” in the sense that Alfie Kohn defines it: Marshaling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable.” As Mischel said, his test measured a child’s ability to manage her “hot emotions” so that she could make a given situation work for her and reach her OWN goals. In other words, this is not about a child meeting someone else’s expectations. It is about the child’s ability to manage herself to reach her own goals in life.

It’s easy to see why the ability to control their impulses helps kids become happier. A child who can regulate his emotions can control his behavior so he’s more likely to get what he wants out of life. 

But this does NOT mean that if your child grabs the treat and eats it, they’ll never be able to manage themselves. The Bing Nursery School where the studies were done emphasizes that, “These studies demystified willpower and showed how self-control and emotion regulation could be enhanced, taught and learned, beginning very early in life, even by children who initially had much difficulty delaying gratification.” 

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