In the ongoing desperate quest for a magic bullet to fix America’s educational system (Whole word! New math! Self-esteem! Video games!), one object continues to present as the most effective method for predicting a child’s academic success going on 40 years now: The humble marshmallow.
Full name: Stanford Marshmallow Experiment
Basic premise: Children between the ages of 3 and 6 are led into a small room by an examiner and presented with a marshmallow. The adult tells the child that she needs to leave for a few moments. The child can either eat the marshmallow now, or wait for the examiner to come back, at which point the child can have two marshmallows. The examiner then exits for approximately fifteen minutes.
Result: The children who were able to delay gratification in anticipation of a greater reward were described by their parents and teachers to be much more competent as adolescents, posted higher SAT scores and grades, and showed superior self-control across the board in all facets of everyday life.
When my daughter was invited to participate in a commercial for Prudential Insurance intended to replicate the famous experiment, I jumped at the chance to see what would happen.
One aspect that rarely gets mentioned as a totally awesome part of parenting is that you can train your offspring to perform cool tricks and/or employ them for at-home science experiments.
For those who are curious how she fared, you can watch the commercial, below (my daughter is the one with the dark hair in the pink dress):
So my daughter was one of the kids who waited for her second marshmallow (fun fact: she then promptly allowed it to roll off her plate onto the ground; good thing they weren’t testing for small motor skills).
I was pleased by the result (though I would have hardly slit my wrists had she given in and taken a bite) because unlike the IQ tests most NYC kids take when applying to Kindergarten, this wasn’t a test of intelligence. It was a test of self-control. And self-control is a skill that can be taught and practiced.
People assume that it’s because we want them to go onto Ivy League colleges and then become huge financial successes, poised to take over the world.
Actually, we don’t give a damn what colleges our kids go to. We believe that most of them, especially the Ivy League, are now so expensive that a reasonable return on investment is impossible.
And we don’t care what they do professionally or how much money they make doing it. My husband and I both left corporate jobs to pursue our respective passions and spend more time with our kids. Wall Street Masters of the Universe, we are not.
So why the obsession with our kids’ educations and putting them through the marshmallow (and other) experiments?
Because, above everything else, we want to arm our children with the tools to survive. Anywhere, anytime, among any kinds of people. And that requires an ability to learn quickly and with agility, building on your previous storehouse of knowledge and drawing conclusions based on the current situation. Amassing that storehouse of knowledge requires self-control.
No one knows what piece of information will come in handy in an emergency, or simply in everyday life. Our response is to aim broadly and go for quantity, to educate them and then to overeducate them during these years when parents still have some influence over what goes into a child’s head (it’s why we’re focusing on the elementary school years. By high-school and college, the kid is pretty much formed).
We want to make them tough and resilient and independent so that when the Communists take over or the Klan comes knocking, they have some semblance of how to act to stay alive. (This particular mindset is a perk of growing up with a Soviet-born mother and an African-American father.
(Remember, kids, the world is full of people who really, really, really don’t like you. And when they come to drive you out of your homes, the only thing you’ll be able to take along is what’s in your head.)
And one more method to our madness: Because we believe people should pursue their passions in life, we want to imbue our children with the knowledge, the work ethic (laziness and half-assed effort is not an option at our house; both are habits we have no interest in our kids developing) and, most importantly, the perseverance and resilience, to be able go after what they want, be it a dream job, mastery of a craft, or a political cause (though preferably not one that involves telling other people how to live their lives). Perseverance and resilience can’t exist without self-control, either.
We want them to not be afraid of failure and to be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again long after everyone else has quit in frustration and fallen by the wayside.
And that, believe it or not, is where the humble marshmallow comes in.