What Parents Must Know About Marshmallows, Tests, and S' mores!

It was 1972.  Walter Mischel was a researcher at Stanford University and he was curious about the human ability to delay gratification.  He gathered four year old children and one by one placed them in a room with a solitary marshmallow.  The children were told that if they could refrain from eating the marshmallow while the researcher left the room (roughly 20 minutes), that they would be given a second marshmallow.  About 30% of the children were able to wait.  They along with the others were tracked for over 30 years and the tales of their lives are very telling.  Let’s take a look.

Toasted marshmallows and emotional intelligence
Toasted marshmallows and emotional intelligence

Those children who were able to delay gratification showed higher levels of happiness emotionally and higher achievement academically.  They had superior skills at managing personal and social stressors, had sharper focusing abilities, had lower levels of substance abuse, and enjoyed healthy, fulfilling relationships.  Academically they boasted SAT scores that were, on average 210 points higher than the children who were not able to self regulate while in the grips of a tempting sugary delight. 

Are you surprised?  Self regulation and delayed gratification are both competencies of emotional intelligence skills.  Countless global experts tell us that these skills create “happier”, more “successful” kids.  These skills are clearly worth developing.

Now it would be easy if parents could simply mandate their kids to self regulate their urges.  “Control yourself” or “just be patient” are two commands that come to mind.  But since these character traits cannot be conjured in the time it takes to eat a marshmallow, we will have to institute measures to develop them in our kids.  So we have reached the crux of this article.  How exactly do we do this?

I believe it begins with a parent that is fully engaged with their child.  Put the iPhone down and toss the newspaper aside.  Get to your child’s level and teach them how to be patient so they can successfully delay gratification. 

1. Be an example of patience.  Kids are watching your every move.  The “monkey, see monkey do” tendency in them will learn to whistle a favorite tune at the exceptionally long red traffic light, or to shriek or curse at it. 

2.Communicate and teach them about alternatives.  “Mary… I know you want to get that doll today, but you are going to have to wait until next week when it’s your birthday”.  Until then, which of your other dolls would you like to play with?

3.Use fantasy.   I know you really want the red toy truck.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could have the red toy truck you want and I could have the red Ferrari I want? 

4.Consider distractions.  For younger children in particular, a different activity can create an “out of sight, out of mind” diversion.  For example a child hungry for dinner that is 15 minutes away from being ready can be told, “No you can’t have a snack right now but we can color together until dinner is ready in 15 minutes.”

5.Praise is a powerful motivator.  As always, it should be delivered with sincerity.  Kids can see your adult artificiality with x-ray vision!  Praise your children when you observe an honest effort at being patient, and self regulating their short term indulgences for their long term benefit.  The key word here is effort.  If it first they cannot succeed, encourage them to keep trying.

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about marshmallows.  They are an essential ingredient in s’ mores.  The individual who is in a rush to eat might just burn the marshmallow while the one who can delay gratification to slowly rotate the marshmallow over an open flame will find it a perfect golden brown, crisped on the outside, and delectably hot and gooey on the inside.  It will melt the chocolate with ease to make this graham cracker sandwich a coveted campfire delight.  How are your s’ mores turning out?

Please leave us a comment.  We’d love to know what you think about marshmallows, tests, or s’ mores!

A Boy, Three Fingers, and Lifelong Resilience


About a year ago, I worked with a client whose 9 year old (we’ll call him “Jacob”) was trying to deal with the pressures of being a little league baseball pitcher.  Despite the self imposed pressure of throwing more strikes than balls or hits, he had to deal with the periodic setback of a poorly played game. During one particular game, Jacob was slow to respond to a bunt that rolled toward 1st base.  After finally retrieving the ball, he dropped it, picked it up again, and then threw it to 2nd base where the batter had swiftly run.  Jacob grossly overthrew the ball into the outfield which allowed the batter to come all the way around 3rd base and reach home plate to score a home run.  That run broke the tie and resulted in Jacob’s team’s loss of the game.

Anyone who understands baseball knows that scoring a home run on a bunt results from a comedy of errors that can only occur in little league.  Jacob wasn’t laughing.  He was crushed at his performance and the heckling from his 9 year old opponents.

Jacob’s mom came to me concerned about his ability to “bounce back” from setbacks.  Every time Jacob loses, he gets a “funny feeling” in his stomach, frowns incessantly, and worst of all, blames everyone else on the team for their errors without addressing his own.

We got to work on right away on building Jacob’s emotional intelligence skills of resilience and accountability.  Many strategies helped him along his way, but one in particular stood out.

We asked Jacob to point his finger as if he was blaming a teammate for the loss of a game.  When he pointed his index finger we asked him where his middle, ring, and pinky fingers were pointing.  Jacob replied “back at me!” 

After that, every time Jacob blamed others (and that was A LOT!) his very dedicated mom and dad firmly yet lovingly reminded him to use the other three fingers pointing back at him to focus on what he could do to be accountable for his own actions. 

It worked!  Within a month, Jacob and his parents even created actions ideas for the three fingers.  They all started with the letter “s” which made them easy to remember.

The middle finger stood for “study and strength”.  After losing a game, Jacob was encouraged to study his errors and learn from them. Of course, his parents helped. After that, he would focus on very specific strengths that he brought to each game.  Jacob particularly liked to recall the number of strikes he threw with his famous curve ball and that made him happy.  With prodding from his parents, he learned to add additional strengths such as “I gave John a pat on the back after he struck out”, and “I hit a line drive when I was up to bat.”

Jacob’s ring finger stood for “slide off.”   He liked his mom’s idea of letting a loss or a poorly played game slide off his shoulders.  He would literally lean back to act out the thought. By viewing the loss as a temporary event, Jacob could start focusing on the next game.  (This thought process is part of a larger approach to learning the important emotional intelligence skill of optimism)

That led to “strategies” which was represented by Jacob’s pinky.  Jacob’s dad was particularly helpful in helping him to think through his plays and practice them. They would spend a couple of hours at the baseball field every weekend.  Besides improving his game, Jacob enjoyed the time with his dad and the feedback he received.

Jacob and his parents are to be congratulated.  They were active participants in the coaching process and worked hard in between sessions to overcome unproductive approaches and implement new ideas in order to achieve success in their goals.

This exercise didn’t just help Jacob improve his game or his mood after a loss; it helped him understand how to be resilient, optimistic and accountable to himself.  Research proves that these emotional intelligence skills will serve Jacob well in the problem solving arena for the rest of his life.  If he slips back in to the finger pointing blame game and its ensuing negativity, he just has to remember where the other three fingers are pointing.

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