On Not Eating the Marshmallow:
It’s not (just) the kids;
it’s the context

Lots of people are familiar with the famous Marshmallow Experiment. And with good reason — it’s one of seminal studies of the last half century and has helped give momentum and credibility to the belief that teaching children self control strategies and the ability to delay gratification is an important (and reasonable!) pursuit.

It all started with marshmallows

In the classic study by Dr. Walter Mischel, preschool age children are given a marshmallow, or other delicious treat, and told that, if they can wait for the research assistant to come back, they would get two such delectable treats. And it turns out that the number of minutes that a 4 year old can wait for that second marshmallow (without eating the first) correlates, decades later, to outcomes including school success, SAT scores, and even BMI scores in middle age. You can learn more about the study here and much more here.

What’s more, it turns out that there are strategies that children can learn that help them delay gratification and hold on for that second marshmallow. Understandably, this study has grabbed some attention, from late night comedians to t-shirts.

Without question, teaching children to delay gratification and giving kids (and maybe adults too?) strategies to postpone immediate pleasure for future gain is, clearly, a good idea. We know it will pay off in all sorts of ways that really matter for kids — in schooling, in work, and in life.

But is that the whole story? Turns out, it’s not.

The problem with this narrative is that, while true, it makes self-control the responsibility of just the kids. “Have more self-control, kid! And you’ll do better!” We intervene to fix kids with low self control. We celebrate kids with lots of self control. But what about the grown ups around the kid? What about the environment?

Broken crayons, broken promises

An ingenious extension of the classic marshmallow test was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Rochester. They introduced a contextual element to the classic study. In this new study, before the classic marshmallow test, the kids were told they could do an art project, and were promised some cool new art supplies as well as fancy stickers. In one condition, the researcher came back with the promised supplies. In a separate condition, the promised art supplies, and then stickers, failed to materialize. The research assistant simply apologized for the mistake, and the kids carried on with a set of old and well-used supplies and a small sticker. Both sets of kids then went on to do the classic marshmallow experiment.

And guess what?

The kids who were taught that the adults and the context could be trusted (those that got the promised materials) waited longer for that second marshmallow than those who were taught that they couldn’t trust the promises of the research team. MUCH longer.

12 minutes instead of 3 minutes, on average. Which swamps, incidentally, the average amount of extra wait time you can get by teaching kids strategies to delay gratification.

Building trusting environments

Surely we should continue to teach kids strategies to delay gratification. Absolutely. Individual differences in self control matter, and giving kids tools to help them delay gratification for long term reward is an important part of equipping young people to be successful adults.

But we also need to think about the environments that we, the adults, are creating for our children. When we teach kids that they can trust us to make good on our promises, they can delay gratification.

When kids don’t trust the environment, they don’t wait for a promised, but unlikely to materialize, reward. That’s not lack of self control — that’s rational decision making. If you have good reason to think that second marshmallow is not coming, it makes sense to grab the one in front of you while you can.

Which, critically, means we need to think about what we are seeing when we see children who are not exercising the amount of self control we would like. It may not be that they lack self-control. It may be that that they are making rational decisions based on the information they have.

Instead of pathologizing kids who exhibit low self control, and focusing on ways to remediate that “deficit” in the child, maybe it’s also our job to create environments for our kids in homes, in schools, and in communities, in which they know promises are going to be honored, and give them a reason to wait.

In ways small and large, we often tell kids things that simply aren’t true. “Hold on, honey, I just need 20 seconds to finish this email, and then I will play as long as you want” (when, in fact, 2 minutes later we’re back to our phones); “Work hard and you can achieve anything” (when, in fact, American social mobility is on a shocking downward trend, and we are now a more class bound society than most European countries).

It’s even harder when structural barriers mean that well intentioned and committed parents and teachers make promises that are harder to keep than the same promises from equally (but not more!) committed and well intentioned parents and teachers with more resources, more structural support, and more stability.

Which is not to say that we need to be perfect parents and teachers and fix all of society’s ills before we expect kids to develop strong self control skills, or before we help them to do so.

But, while we focus on helping kids delay gratification, let’s also spend some time thinking about how to build homes, schools, and communities that build and strengthen trust. Lets find ways, large and small, to support parents and teachers so that all of us have an equal shot at creating environments where promises are kept. Where it really is worth the wait.

Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk