This is the final installment of a six-part series on how to raise resilient kids. There is no formula, of course, but over the years, psychologists have learned what helps build resilience in children and teens. In this series, we’ve explored several of the big components that help them persist and thrive, despite the slings and arrows of life.
“Marshmallow Kid” Experiment by Walter Mischel
Fifty years ago at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, psychologist Walter Mischel began what would become one of the most famous psychological experiments of all time. He brought preschoolers into a room one at a time and offered them a small treat like a little marshmallow (or a mint or pretzel) that they could eat immediately, but, if they waited for fifteen minutes or so, they could have two treats. Then he just observed what each kid did.
As you might guess, some of the kids ate the marshmallow right away and gave up the chance to get the second treat, while others white-knuckled it and waiting for time to expire so they could get the bigger payoff.
Mischel and his colleagues followed these 500 or so kids up through elementary school, middle school, high school, and even for some kids, into the college years. What he found was remarkable. The kids who waited seemed to do better on nearly everything they measured. Their grades were better. They had better SAT scores. They had lower body mass index scores. They were more likely to stay out of trouble.
“As kids get older and move into their teens, they can also see how these choices can accumulate for even bigger payoffs.”
In short, the ability to wait for two marshmallows predicted a whole range of good life outcomes. But why?
Because underlying the experiment is a notion called “Delay of Gratification.” This concept has been around for decades and piles of research consistently show that kids who are better at it tend to do better in nearly all facets of life. Simply put, delay of gratification is the ability to say no to a pleasure now to gain something better later.
In real life, this looks like saying no to Netflix now to study for a big test that will boost my GPA. It looks like saying no to chili cheese fries now to get in better shape later. It looks like not buying a cool shirt now to save my money for an upgraded laptop later.
Some kids do this naturally well, while other kids struggle with it. If you have a kid who is quick to take the easy way, the good news is that delay of gratification can be developed. Like any skill, you can get better at it with practice.
Here are some ways you can help your child become a Two Marshmallow Kid:
Explain Delay of Gratification
The first step is the most obvious, but the one that parents often miss. Kids don’t understand the concept of delay of gratification until they are taught about it. However, even for younger kids, if they can see the connection between saying no to a fun thing now to get something better later, they are more likely to do it.
As kids get older and move into their teens, they can also see how these choices can accumulate for even bigger payoffs. A series of good decisions to study instead of goof off leads to increasingly good grades, which can open up more options later.
Start by explaining what delay of gratification is: it’s the ability to say no to something fun now to get something better later. From there, tell them the marshmallow experiment—and the outcome! Kids that waited for two marshmallows did better in school, were healthier, and even had better relationships than kids who didn’t wait.
Next, ask your child why this is true. Have him figure it out and give possible reasons why this could be true. Then give a few examples: A kid who studied instead of playing video games all night. A kid who saved money instead of spent it.
Finally, ask your child for one way she would like to practice this skill and see if she is willing to commit to one area or goal. Don’t expect perfection. Praise effort and a willingness to even consider this.
Teach the Power of the Pause
I love 100 Grand Bars. There’s just something about that combination of chocolate and caramel and crispy rice that does it for me. I could eat a whole bag of them. Recently, I had cut most processed sugar out of my life, so I wasn’t drinking soft drinks and I wasn’t eating candy. One night, a few days after Halloween, I was invited to speak at an event and someone had brought their kids’ leftover candy and put it on the sign-in table.
And there, sitting right on top was a little “fun-size” 100 Grand Bar.
Without so much as a second thought, I swooped down on that candy bar like a barn owl on a mouse and had that thing devoured in a matter of seconds.
I immediately felt like an idiot.
To be honest, eating one fun size candy bar is not going to be the make-or-break moment of my health. The issue is deeper, though. It’s really about a mindset. It’s about a way of thinking.
If I had paused just for a moment, I probably would have made a better choice. One study found that if people paused for just 50 milliseconds—milliseconds, not second!—they were able to make much better decisions. Dr. Jack Grinband, the study’s co-author, said this pause “enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors.” In the study, if people delayed their actions by even a fraction of a second, they were able to make correct decisions more often.
In practical terms, this means we can teach our kids the power of the pause. If you are faced with a choice—eat the candy bar, turn on the Xbox, buy the shoes—practice waiting a couple of seconds, calming your thoughts, then asking yourself a simple question: What is the best choice?
Waiting a few seconds won’t guarantee you’ll always make the best choice, but it does mean your chance of that is greater.
Organize Life Around Good Choices
In my old house, I had a TV on the wall across from my desk. When I’d sit down to write, it was incredibly easy to turn on the TV just to see if anything interesting was on. One minute turned into ten minutes turned into thirty minutes and the next thing I knew, I was doing more TV watching than writing. Even when I knew this was my habit, I would still do turn on the television. It was just too easy.
“The ability to wait for two marshmallows predicted a whole range of good life outcomes.”
In my current office, the television is behind me when I’m at my desk. That little environmental adjustment has made it easier to settle into my writing and to produce more. One little change made a big difference.
Remember my penchant for 100 Grand Bars? Currently, there are no candies, no soft drinks, no sugary cereal, no ice cream in the house. The reason is obvious: if they were in the house, they’d find their way into my belly.
Recently, my awesome mother-in-law decided to give each of our kids a financial gift to help them with daily living expenses. All of them are now living either in an apartment or a dorm and they have different costs than they did when they lived at home.
When my son heard about this, he was very grateful to his grandmother, but he asked me to apply some of the money to an auto-draft for a particular bill and he asked me to put the remainder in an account that he couldn’t touch until later. He knew that if he had extra money, he’d be tempted to spend it and he wants to save his money for a trip. I was really proud of his choice and I was more than happy to help him out with this arrangement.
To be awesome at delay of gratification, you don’t always have to be awesome at self-control in every situation. Instead, it’s perfectly good and reasonable to organize your life to make it more likely to make the right decision. Keep the electronics out of the bedroom at night. Eliminate sugary foods from the house. Put money in a supervised account. Have a set of weights in the garage. Make a dedicated study space downstairs. In other words, create an environment that makes good choices more likely.
Set SMART Goals
One of the best ways to help children and teens become Two Marshmallow Kids is to get in the habit of setting good short-term and long-term goals. These goals give a reason for saying no to the first marshmallow. We study hard because we want to get into the National Honor Society. We practice our sport hard because we want to make the varsity team. We save 80% of our money so we can buy some nice video editing software. The goal allows us to make a tougher choice now for a better thing later.
Setting good goals is an art-form, but people who master it tend to excel in many areas of their lives. The acronym SMART can help guide you. First proposed by George Doran in a business journal, the acronym has been adopted by Peter Drucker and others. Here are the components of SMART goals:
S – Specific. A good goal should be specific, clear, and concise. What is to be accomplished? Who is involved in completing the goal?
M – Measurable. A good goal should state how you know if you have achieved it. “I want to be in better shape” is not measurable. “I want to walk three miles a day at least four times a week” is highly measurable.
A – Achievable. While it seems laudable to set lofty goals, the best goals are ones that can reasonably be achieved. “I will get all A’s this semester” may seem like a great goal, but for someone who has never come close to that, it might be better to set a more achievable goals, like, “I want nothing less than a B and an overall GPA of at least 3.4 this semester.”
R – Relevant. The question here is whether this is the best goal to set at this point in your life. If you really need to focus on school and you set a goal for hitting a certain level in a video game, then maybe that isn’t the best goal to set.
T – Time-Bound. There should be a timeframe for meeting the goal. It should be something that you want to achieve by the end of this semester, by the end of the calendar year, by the beginning of the baseball season, and so on.
Setting SMART goals gives a person a reason to say no to the fun little distraction now to say yes to achieving something bigger and better later.
Over the past few years, the research has proven so many benefits to the regular practice of gratitude. People who express gratitude are happier, healthier, and have a greater sense of meaning. We’ve also found that being grateful can help children and teens become Two Marshmallow Kids.
Much of the time when someone fails to exercise delay of gratification, it is because they are not satisfied with what they have. They want something else to feel better, so they buy the new video game or binge watch more Gilmore Girls or eat the giant bowl of ice cream. However, when we have a mindset of gratitude, it’s harder to feel deprived or to keep wanting more.
“Delay of gratification is the ability to say no to a pleasure now to gain something better later.”
With gratitude, we become satisfied with what we have and we are more likely to wait until the time is right for even better things.
A Final Word: Turn Your Kid Into a GOAT
In this six-part series, I planted a little Easter Egg for you. After the introduction, I built each of the articles around an acronym: GOAT.
G – Growth-mindset. This is the idea that kids are more resilient if they have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset assumes that I just have been dealt a certain hand and there’s not much I can do about it. I’m bad at math. I’m good at soccer. I have a bad temper. I am shy. A growth mindset sees the issue being about effort. I’m not good at math—yet. I need to work hard to control my anger. The more of a growth mindset a person has, the more resilient they become.
O – Other-centered. The more focused on the well-being of others, the community we are part of, and the world around us, rather than simply focusing on ourselves, the happier and healthier we become. We also become more resilient because the process of becoming more other-centered takes us outside of ourselves, gives us a bigger perspective, and provides our lives with more meaning and purpose.
A – Adventurous. Kids who are willing to take good risks tend to be more resilient. When they take a chance where they have a chance of failing (safely), then develop the kind of mental muscle that helps them persevere and grow. Going out for a sports team where you might not make it, trying out for a school musical when you’ve never done it before, asking a girl out who might say no to you. Taking a higher-level math course that will challenge you. Going to a camp where you know no one. These are just a few ways kids can take good risks and become more resilient.
T – Two Marshmallow. The better our ability to delay gratification, the more resilient we become. We become more tough-minded and make better decisions in the moment. It’s a mental skill that can serve someone for their entire life.
So to help you remember how to help your kids be more resilient, I want you to turn your Kid into a GOAT. She can become more growth-minded, other-centered, adventurous, and “two marshmallows.”
By the way, teens often use GOAT to mean “Greatest of All Time”. I love the term, and while I can’t promise you that helping your kid become more resilient will make him the Greatest of All Time, I can confidently say it will go a long way to helping him have a rich and rewarding life.