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So what’s with the marshmallows?

I love reading studies about the brain and how it works, and especially as they pertain to raising kids. Studies like these range all over the map from serious, in-depth, well-designed work by professionals to headline-grabbing, seriously flawed studies by people who think they know what they’re doing. In either case, the results from these studies—which should always be taken with a large grain of salt and a deep, calming breath—can help parents question their parenting. In my view, it’s not about being a perfect parent, but about being a conscious parent. As long as you’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re probably doing a pretty good job.

One of the psychological studies that has been referenced a lot lately was the “marshmallow study” done with the children of Stanford grad students forty years ago. The researchers asked the children to sit in a room with a marshmallow and not to eat it. If they didn’t eat it, they’d get two when the researcher returned. Then the researcher went out of the room and watched while the kids squirmed and fought with their inclination just to eat the darn thing and get it over with.

The cool thing about this study is not the marshmallow. The cool thing is that these kids were the children of Stanford grads, and they agreed to be followed as they grew and made choices in their lives. (As anyone knows, if you want to make sure you can find people, just hire the Stanford Alumni Association to do it. For a period of about twelve years I moved at least once a year, and they always found me!) So this study is what’s called “longitudinal”—it doesn’t just test in a lab environment, but also in the real world.

These kids, one could argue, had everything: educated parents, excellent schools, a higher than average standard of living. But the researchers found that, in fact, not all of them had what they needed, and that thing they didn’t have was self-control.

You can read this piece at EdWeek to get details. It turns out that self-control correlates much more than pretty much anything else with a student’s future success as an adult. IQ, it has been shown, has no relationship to success. (One of my favorite statistics is the percentage of Terman’s “genius” students who won a Nobel Prize: 0%. That’s right, being designated a genius by an IQ test is not a prerequisite to reaching the top of your chosen field.) Even grades in high school are not a great determiner of future success.

I find this study interesting because it clearly aligns with what all of us see about successful people: They are more focused than the rest of us, they set goals, and they don’t give up. They say that the thing that successful people have in common is failure: They were more likely to have failed and persevered through more failure. The rest of us fail and give up.

I have a bit of a beef, however, with the original researchers and with the follow-up detailed in the EdWeek piece: What’s the deal with the marshmallows? As soon as I read about the original study, I saw a flaw in their reasoning. So I decided to question my daughter, who is famously lacking in self-control in some ways, but also completely honest about her intentions and able to think through situations to decide if she even wants to have self-control.

“So if I gave you a marshmallow and told you I’d give you another one if you held off eating that marshmallow for fifteen minutes, what would you do?” I asked her. Now, I realize that asking a kid and actually doing the experiment are different. But I had a hunch I’d get an interesting answer. Here’s what she said.

“Well, I’m not really crazy about marshmallows,” she told me. “They’re OK toasted over a campfire in s’mores. But if it was just a cold marshmallow, I’d probably just eat it right away.”


“Because cold marshmallows aren’t very good,” she explained. “So I wouldn’t want a second one anyway.”

Here’s self-control for you: Since our last camping trip, we’ve had a half-full bag of marshmallows sitting in plain view in the pantry. My daughter, great lover of junk food, goes in there daily and stares—we call it pantry TV or refrigerator TV in our house—trying to find something, anything that has no redeeming nutritional qualities. That bag of marshmallows remains untouched.

Similarly, I know that I can’t keep bad stuff that I love in the house. I recently made a cheesecake and the leftovers made it, small slice by small slice, into my stomach and straight to my hips! But that bag of marshmallows? I have no problem whatsoever letting it sit there. I second my daughter’s opinion: s’mores twice yearly while camping is marshmallow enough for me.

So to all you parents who are fretting about your child’s self-control, I ask you to reconsider this study: Instead of “does my child have general self-control,” ask yourself, “does my child have self-control when it pertains to a specific goal?”

The press tells us that Barack Obama can’t seem to resist a few daily cigarettes. But he made it to the presidency, which most of us would agree is a measure of success. I bet he wouldn’t have eaten that marshmallow, either.

Posted in Culture, Psychology.

One Response

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  1. Caryn says

    I share your suspicions and quite agree with your dd. (we too can leave cold marshmallows on the counter, and several kinds of jelly beans … But not caramels or chocolate)

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