By John Bernhardt, Superintendent of Andes Central SchoolHow do we get young people to develop the sort of self-control that contributes to later success? For example, consider the concept of delayed gratification; the ability to discipline yourself to wait, to delay the urge for gratification in the short-term in order to enjoy greater rewards sometime in the future. For many years psychologists and personal and financial managers and planners have identified delayed gratification as a prerequisite for future success.
A landmark study, The Marshmallow Study, conducted by psychology researcher Michael Mischel at Stamford University, explored the effects of delayed gratification. Mischel started his longitudinal study by observing how well a group of 4-year-olds could delay gratification and control impulsivity. In the study, the Stamford researcher left his young subjects alone with a bell and a marshmallow. The children were told that Mischel would be leaving the room to run an errand. If they rang the bell, the youngsters believed Mischel would return and they could eat the marshmallow. If they waited for Mischel to return on his own, they could receive two marshmallows to eat. Video footage captured each child’s response after Mischel left the room.
How important is a child’s ability to delay immediate gratification? Is self-discipline and self-control an accurate predictor of a child’s future success in life? Can children be taught the skill of delaying immediate gratification? Let’s take a look.
The Marshmallow Study yielded interesting results. After following the participants through their K-12 schooling and into their early adulthood, the Stamford researchers discovered startling contrasts between those who waited for two marshmallows and those who did not. The 4-year-olds who waited realized far greater success in school. On average, students who showed the ability to delay gratification scored 210 points higher on SAT scores and attended better colleges than the children demonstrating a lesser degree of self-control. Youngsters who had learned to wait, by and large, were more positive, more independent, more self-motivating, and more persistent during times of trouble than the children who impulsively rang the bell and demanded their reward.
On the other hand, the impulsive children in the study developed traits and characteristics that became obstacles as they tried to realize life success. As young adults, children who could not wait were more troubled, more stubborn and indecisive, more mistrustful and less confident, and struggled maintaining the positive relationships realized by their more patient peers.
Young people who can delay gratification are armed with a behavior trait that serves them well over time. Not every class is exciting. Not every job is free of rote or manual tasks that become routine. Youngsters who delay gratification develop the self-help skills that allow them to look forward, to gauge the future value of a current endeavor and to avoid pitfalls like drugs and alcohol that provide a temporary, artificial boost.
The good news is that learning delayed gratification can be taught. As the Marshmallow Study shows, patterns of behavior are learned early and already in place before children attend school. Educational programs teaching parents strategies they can use to develop a habit of delayed gratification are useful. Using playtime, parents and caregivers can target toys, books, and media that reinforce self-control. Spending resources on pre-school and other early learning programs is also important. When parents and other significant adults model their own use of delayed gratification, children take note. Including children in family discussions that identify long-term goals and highlight the difference between things we want and things we need is also effective. Finally, delayed gratification is an important financial principle children can be taught.
In seeking answers to questions like these, we might raise more young people who learn first-hand and later enjoy the power of two marshmallows. ~