How I’m Teaching My Kids to Delay Gratification (Marshmallows Included)

Last spring I was holed up in my office writing my book. One night I took a break and came up into our kitchen and called my youngest daughter. I asked 3 year old Olivia, “would you like a marshmallow?” Of course she would. I pulled the squishy white candy out of the pantry and put one in her hand.

Then I offered her a chance to eat two of her favorite corn syrupy treats. I said, “Olivia, you can have two marshmallows, instead of one, if you are willing to wait and eat them later. You can give me the one back, we’ll go play awhile and then come back and you can have two. Would you like to do that? Or do you want to eat the one you have? One or two?”

She shook her head no to indicate that she didn’t want my two marshmallow deal. Her mouth was too full of white goo to articulate “no thanks, mom.”

The Marshmallow Study

In the late 1960s and early 70s Walter Mischel led a team of Stanford researchers in a series of experiments similar to what I did with Olivia, dubbed the marshmallow study. They offered 3, 4 and 5 years a choice. They could eat a single marshmallow right now. Or, they could wait alone in a room, just them and the marshmallow, until the researcher returned bearing two delicious treats. Only 30% of the 650+ kids successfully resisted the tempting marshmallow for the 15 minute wait and enjoyed two tasty marshmallows.

The most interesting thing about this marshmallow study is what Mischel finds 15+ years later. He and his team track down the kids, then young adults, that participated. They studied these young adults. How did they cope with problems? What capacity do they have to plan? How well do they get along with peers? What were their SAT scores?

Surprisingly, the 3, 4 and 5 year old kids that had an ability to wait for two marshmallows scored better in every area they surveyed. Translated into Carrie-speak, the kids who had the umph, the hootzpah, the self-control to wait for two marshmallows had better outcomes in life than those who couldn’t wait.

Marshmallows and Money

“I’ve failed as a parent” is what I thought as Olivia walked away happily chomping her marshmallow. “My daughter can’t delay gratification and I’m not sure what to do about it.” (Yes, I know that I’m prone to drama in my thoughts. It wasn’t quite as fatal a situation as it seemed in that moment.)

My thoughts were consumed for days by the powerful correlation between a preschoolers ability to delay gratification and his/her success in life as an adult. In my own mind I extrapolated Meschel’s results of improved SAT scores, increased social skills and better problem solving abilities to mean a better financial future – better foresight and financial planning, earning higher incomes and prudent spending habits – for two-marshmallow kids.

Those are the kind of kids I am trying to raise. Kids who can sit in front of a single marshmallow for 15 minutes and wait for the opportunity to get two marshmallows instead. But how?

Raising Two-Marshmallow Kids

I’ve got a long way to go before my girls have their own bank accounts and their first jobs. Yet, Meschel’s study convinced me that right now, in their preschool/early elementary years, I have got to teach them some fundamental lessons about money. Yet they are too young to understand the abstract nature of money. Hmmm…it seemed like a quandary until I realized that they do have currencies within their control, but none of them are legal tender.

TV time is our main trading currency right now. Each day my girls are allowed to watch two 30-minute television shows. Taking the marshmallow study to heart,  I started allowing them to bank their TV time. If they forgo 30 minutes today, then they can have 90 minutes tomorrow. Ninety minutes feels like a bigger deal than 60 because it’s enough time to watch a full-length film on Netflix. And hey, that beats two episodes of Caillou any day, right?

I also let them trade their TV time for other things, much like you trade your money for groceries and gasoline. If they give me 30 minutes of TV time, then they can have an extra chapter in their bedtime chapter book.

The Moral of the Story

I learned two major lessons from the Stanford marshmallow study:

  • It is my job as a parent to teach delayed gratification to my kids (and by “teach” I also mean model and demonstrate) . It is never too early, nor is it ever too late, to intentionally train my children to wait. I don’t think the skill falls out of the sky on to their head.
  • I can teach financial lessons without using money. The skill of waiting is universal – whether waiting for a marshmallow, a full-length film on Netflix or to save for a desired purchase.

What do you think? Were you taught to delay gratification or no? Would you have been able to wait for two marshmallows? How have you trained your kids, young or old, to wait?