During the 2020 quarantine, did you challenge your child to the “Marshmallow Test”? I saw several videos on Facebook of families that did. Watching these children’s reactions is fascinating, regardless of what treat they were challenged with. The original Stanford study required a 4 – 6 year old child to wait for 15 minutes to get a SECOND of their favorite treat. That’s a LONG time! What does a child’s success with this challenge have to do with their long term success? The answer is PACKED with implications for those who can and those who can’t… yet. (This original post from 2011, was updated Nov. 2020.)
Does your child have the ability to stop on cue? How about the ability to wait patiently to take a turn with a desired toy or object? What strategies will your child use when they see ONE treat in front of them, and wait awhile WITHOUT eating it, in order to get TWO treats upon your return? What strategies do YOU use to wait in order to get something in the future?
Your child’s ability to successfully master these inhibitory control tasks, at any point in time, are a significant factor in their future success, in some ways even more of an indicator of their future success than their academic abilities. Some of the skills involved in this success of THIS challenge includes:
- visualizing the future (the mind’s image of a desire is a powerful skill)
- STOP the actions to eat the treat (although they are allowed to touch)
- involving oneself in other activities (without any toys available) while waiting
These inhibitory-control skills can be gained through positive practice and is one of the most fundamental ways that parents can set their children up for future success, in whatever they choose to do. Musical play lends to making this practice more enjoyable and increased their desire for repetition, which is the process in which it will develop. Start young, and it will be a natural part of their personality. But whatever the age, start !
Let’s examine several aspects of Inhibitory Control, and see how the Marshmallow Test is an indicator of their CURRENT ability for Delayed Gratification, a skill necessary for success in life.
Inhibitory Control is the ability to control your own actions. It is the “ability to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead to do what is most appropriate or needed. Instead of reacting with what is on the mind at that moment, the child has to stop or inhibit that inclination and enact something else.” (Metropolitan State College of Denver – see article.)
STOP ON CUE: In Kindermusik classes, children are exposed to activities where we move for awhile, then STOP on cue. With babies, they are simply in mom’s arms when they first experience it. They begin to recognize the pattern and begin to anticipate and enjoy the changes.
Personally, my son was 16 months old when I started taking him to Kindermusik, and he really LOVED the song activity, “You walk and you walk and you walk and you STOP!” During class, he insisted that I hold him. But around the neighborhood, we practiced the same STOP song/game while walking, jumping, stomping, tiptoeing, etc. To see him be so happy to STOP, and that it was generalizing to other areas of his life, was my light bulb moment to begin to understand the benefits of Kindermusik. And I have grown to see so many more as I watch these children blossom through music over the last 20 years as I enjoyed facilitating these activities with families.
As they enter toddlerhood, we also teach children to use sign language for STOP when they stop (it really helps). I’ve seen children as young as 16 months old effectively SIGN and STOP at the appropriately time in the activity – right on CUE ! We practice this regularly throughout our core curriculum (0-7 yrs) in lots of different ways, with our bodies, using instruments, using props such as scarves, or even with balls (one of the hardest).
Being able to THINK BEFORE YOU ACT: Young babies often grab toys from each other even without a reaction. But once they start to grasp the concept of MINE (because I am holding it), they get upset if it is taken away. In Kindermusik, one of the strategies we start teaching is the concept of trading. In order to get one object, the person should offer another object in exchange, an example of one of the more socially acceptable ways of getting something that is desired. Of course, this is an abstract concept for babies, so we just help them go through the movements to experience it, and they can see it does help with the interactions with other babies (less crying). As they get older, with enough practice, they cognitively start to realize the need to consider others reactions before they act. 2020 note: While in our outdoor classes, family boxes are filled with a variety and children are encouraged to trade with items from their family box, or with their grownup, rather than with other children… for now.
TURN TAKING: It is soooo hard to wait for a turn to handle a desired object. One of the best ways to get a child to want to play with something is to pick it up and start playing with it yourself. (This is a parenting trick which plays on their natural reactions.) Starting at around 18 months in our Kindermusik Level 2 program, we start offering opportunities to WAIT PATIENTLY for a turn for hands-on exploration a desired object. It is best to use activities that have a specified limit on the time for each turn, such as a song. When the song is over, it is the next person’s turn.
Here’s an example, in the Our Time class, we use a set of resonator bars to play along with a song “Sweetly Sings the Donkey”. Only one set of resonator bars is presented, although each child has a set of mallets in their family box. It is hard enough to wait while the teacher plays an example. A variety of ideas are shared, so a child can choose how to be engaged with the activity in their own way as they WAIT for their turn. For example, bouncing to the beat on their parents lap, or and use their mallets to tap on the floor, or on different parts of their body. In this manner, parents are learning strategies to help their child practice skills that can help them wait more patiently.
At first, it requires parent assistance, and working with a child to find strategies that work best for each child specifically. With consistency and repetition, sooner or later, they will start to be able to use the same skills themselves in situations where an adult is not present.
This leads to success in what is called DELAYED GRATIFICATION, the ability to forgo an immediate pleasure or reward in order to gain a more substantial one later. The ability to do this effectively increases as children get older and continues to practice this in more challenging ways, like learning to play an instrument. Having the opportunity to practice effective strategies for patience regularly will increase this ability even more. As will a child’s ability to focus on the FUTURE, more than on the PRESENT. The ability to delay gratification is often a sign of emotional and social maturity.
The Marshmallow Test, a Stanford University Study in the 1960-70s
The MARSHMALLOW TEST is a classic study that tests a child’s ability to delay gratification. It studies the strategies that helped children wait, and follows up with them each decade through to adulthood and measures their success on several critical life dynamics, including school/work success, health, relationships, financial security, and percieved happiness. Not surprisingly, those who were more successful with this Marshmallow Test ended up more successful in life. (The New Yorker Article “Don’t ! The secret to self control” is a LONG but FASCINATING article presenting the details of this study in depth.
In this test, children were placed by themselves in a room with a table, a chair, and a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. They were told they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted to, but if they waited 15 minutes until the researcher returned, they would get TWO marshmallows. Through prestudies, they found that children 3 years old and younger had little ability to wait. But starting around 4 years old, there were some who could. So the initial test, by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel 40 years ago, involved only 4, 5 & 6 year olds. Two out of three children were not able to wait. But 1/3 of them did. The videos capturing their reactions while alone are priceless !
Hear it straight from the lead researcher on this project, Walter Mischel. It was interesting to hear the actual test allowed the children to CHOOSE their most desired type of candy, even if it was chocolate, or other treats. His discussion is absolutely worth listening to, but it didn’t have any videos of the children.
Get the basics of the study, and global implications, in this video of a wonderful short lecture by Joachim de Posada. This video was chosen because of the adorable reactions of the children to this challenge.
How would YOUR child fare in this test? This fun article tells How to Give the Marshmallow Test. (This is recommended for children over 4 years old and older.) PLEASE read the directions fully and NOTE that the results of your child’s test is not an indicator of future success, but rather an observation of their CURRENT skill level with these abilities. DO NOT give up hope they can do this.
For some belly laughs, watch the Mature Marshmallow Test with adults.
Musical activities are an excellent way for a child to learn self control, and to occupy themselves while waiting, through finger plays, singing songs or rhymes, creative movement, and imaginative storytelling. For example, a child might enjoy some counting rhymes while touching the marshmallow with each finger. Another child may pretend the marshmallow is a character, like a pirate, and have him sing pirate songs and go on pirate adventures. Another child may sing marching songs and move around the room in a variety of ways, ignoring the marshmallow all together.
Parents can help their child gain these skills by practicing these activities during WAITING times, like in line at the grocery store. What strategies would your child use to WAIT for a 2nd treat, or when they would rather be doing something else?
If you choose to implement this test with your child, PLEASE post your comments here ! If possible, include a video of your child while they are waiting.