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? How about the ability to see ONE marshmallow in front of them, and wait awhile WITHOUT eating it, in order to get TWO marshmallows upon your return?
Your child’s ability to successfully master these inhibitory control tasks are a significant factor in their future success, in some ways even more of an indicator of their future success than their academic abilities.
These are skills that a child can gain 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. 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 the ability for Delayed Gratification, as 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 even as young as one year old, 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 like it, and come to anticipate it. As they get older, 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.
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, we start offering opportunities to WAIT PATIENTLY for a turn to handle 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. It is hard enough to wait while the teacher plays an example. The children are instructed to sit on their parents lap in order to get a turn to play the instruments. Parents are provided ideas on how to get their child engaged with the activity in their own way as they WAIT for their turn. In this manner, parents are helping their child practice skills that can help them wait.
At first, it requires parent assistance, and working with a child to find strategies that work best for each child specifically. Hopefully at some point, 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. Having the opportunity to practice effective waiting strategies 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 is a classic study that tests a child’s ability to delay gratification. It studies the strategies that helped children wait, and follows them through to adulthood and measures their success as young adults. Not surprisingly, those who were more successful with this delayed gratification 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 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 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 !
Get the basics of the study, and global implications, in this video of a wonderful short lecture by Joachim de Posada:
For some belly laughs, watch the Mature Marshmallow Test with adults.
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.
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. 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 marshmallow?
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.