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Stanford University conducted a longitudinal study to monitor children’s self-control and how it impacted them in later years as adults.
The study is referred to as the “Marshmallow Test”.
- 4 year old children were brought into a small room with only a table and a chair. They were given one marshmallow. The researcher promised them that they would be given a second marshmallow if they waited to eat the first marshmallow until the researcher returned.
- Then the child was left alone with the marshmallow.
- Some kids ate the marshmallow right away, unable or unwilling to wait for a few minutes for the second one.
- Some kids were able to sacrifice temporarily by waiting the necessary time period in order to double the reward.
- In watching the footage of this study, it is clear that it is difficult for all of the children to wait. They frequently touch, lick, hold, and pick at the marshmallows. They hold their faces in their hands, try to look away, bounce up and down, and show many other physical signs of distress as they wait.
- But, about 1/3 of the children are successful and receive two marshmallows.
Later in life, the researchers followed up to see how these kids turned out. Those who had enough self-control to wait for their marshmallows had many advantages in their life- higher SAT scores, less frustration, more focus, more decisiveness, better organizational skills, more confident, more self-reliant, etc.
Call it what you will- waiting, sacrifice, delaying gratification, work… The results are the same.
As parents, we are asked to sacrifice for our kids…. A lot. All the time.
- We spend our money on the kids first- paying for soccer cleats, dance outfits, music lessons, etc.
- We spend our gas on the kids first- driving to school, practices, games or performances, the store, friends’ houses, etc.
- We spend our time on the kids first- helping with homework, going to their performances or games, and playing Chutes and Ladders.
- We spend our energy on the kids first- worrying about how they are doing in school, planning their future, working multiple jobs to provide for them financially, and teaching them skills.
- We even give our sleep up for our kids- waking up at night with the baby, calming a child who had a nightmare, and waking up early to get them ready for school.
I hear this question from parents frequently, and I’ve been surprised to find myself asking the same thing on tough days: “When will this be worth it?”
The ray of hope from this study is that the children who were able to wait had amazing positive qualities as a result of this one trait- the ability to wait. They didn’t benefit from actually getting what they wanted (the marshmallow) but from the waiting itself. These are qualities that helped them in almost every other aspect of their life.
They developed qualities to help them in school, work, finances, relationships…. And yes, parenting.
All that came from the undergoing the process of waiting. And the ability to “wait well” rather than giving in to temptation early.
So maybe waiting- or making sacrifices- isn’t that bad.
Maybe waiting is a learning process, like life’s version of going to school. Everyone has days when they don’t want to go to school, and that’s ok. Nobody wants to wait for things that they are excited to receive.
But the reward for waiting- especially waiting well- is way more than two marshmallows. It’s success across all areas of your life!
That means better finances, better jobs, better family and home life, stronger friendships, less stress and frustration…
What an amazing promise!
Here’s the other great thing about this study- They found that self-control doesn’t have to be innate within us. The children who ate the marshmallow could practice and practice until they learned to wait. In fact, sometimes those children were better at waiting than the children who were innately good at it in the first place.
- Children can be taught skills like using their imagination to decrease the temptation, such as imagining that the marshmallow is burnt. This makes temptation less appealing.
- Or, children can use their imagination to entertain themselves during the wait, making the time pass more quickly. They can drum their fingers or sing a song. Anything to take their mind off the marshmallow.
- Or, they can remind themselves that the reward is worth the wait. Picture the reward at the end to inspire yourself to keep waiting.
There are endless strategies that children- And might I add…. Adults???- can use to help themselves learn to sacrifice.
If this really works, I want to try it.
In my adult life, there are two kinds of “marshmallows” that I encounter.
Being Rewarded by Getting Something I Want
One of the hardest facts of adult life is that there are often no tangible rewards for our efforts.
We bust our butts and the best reward we can get is to “feel good” at the end of the day.
That’s great if you make sure to stop and notice your own progress. It takes conscious thought to look back on my day, pause to notice my accomplishments, and take in that pride. That’s rewarding to me.
The problem with this approach is that there are days when I forget to stop and make that conscious effort to reward myself.
If I forget to reward myself for several days or weeks on end, the stress accumulates and can lead to feeling burnt out.
Being Rewarded by Avoiding Pain or Stress
This concept reminds me of a monkey trap. For those of you who have never trapped monkeys (actually, I haven’t either… but it’s still a great metaphor for life. This method is discussed more here with slight variation), here’s how to do it.
Image from https://oneragamuffin.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/those-crazy-spider-monkeys/
Find a vase with a narrow neck- just barely wide enough for the monkey to slip its paw into. Fill the vase with rocks until it is too heavy for the monkey to lift.
Put some kind of food around the jar to bait the monkey. Add a few more pieces of food into the jar, just on top of the rocks.
When the monkey comes along, he will eat the food and soon discover the last bits inside the jar. He reaches in, grabs a fist full of food, but can’t pull his hand back out now that it is full of food.
All he has to do to be free is let go of the food and his hand will easily slide back out of the jar. But he won’t sacrifice what he has to avoid a bigger problem of being caught.
There are times in our lives when it is better to lose a small prize to avoid big pain.
I stress about meal times. I don’t want to prepare food, cook the food, set the table, and clean up after the meal. I put a little work into preparing freezer meals so that I can avoid the pain of cooking a meal from scratch after a long day at work.
I also work hard to avoid financial distress. I am rewarded by paying for my rent because I don’t get evicted.
I eat fewer carbs to avoid bad health. I’m rewarded with a slimmer figure and more energy.
I pack snacks in my purse before I go to Walmart to avoid a h-angry child. I’m rewarded with a calm child and a smooth shopping trip.
A few months ago, I hit a slump in both categories.
I didn’t felt motivated enough to put in work now so that I could avoid pain later. It felt like I was stretching my physical and emotional limits just to get the necessities taken care of. But I wasn’t getting enough done to feel proud of what I had accomplished for the day.
No reward from getting something good…. No reward from avoiding something bad…. No rewards at all.
It seemed like my to do list was just as extensive as it was when I woke up that morning. And I had less motivation to do anything the next day because all that effort didn’t seem worth anything.
As my motivation spiraled downward, I tried to remedy this situation by giving myself a much needed break.
The weird thing was that it was never enough. I couldn’t get a long enough break in without being interrupted by a child in need or work or a dirty house. Each time my leisure time was cut short, I craved it more and more.
I found an unexpected pattern- for a few weeks, I was getting more down time than I had in months, but I felt worse than I had in months.
I thought the leisure would fix my stresses, but it only amplified them by keeping me away from the necessary tasks to decrease my stress- like cleaning the house or going to work. The more “me time” I took, the more unhappy I became.
And yet, I still wanted the leisure time. I was in a bad habit of having it and didn’t want to give it up- even just to switch back to healthy levels of leisure.
It was a depressing situation to be in.
But this study gave me hope, and so, I decided to conduct an experiment on myself.
Here was the big question: Can I teach myself to wait for my marshmallow?
I stepped back to remember what is most important and determined to make the sacrifices I needed to get those things or become those things.
Obviously, my kids were top of the list. So I started acting like it.
I started sacrificing for my kids again. I put aside my “me time” to play with my kids, to get the shopping done, to help them with problems, to go to work, to clean the house, to cook food. You know, all that mom stuff.
The results were quick.
I felt happy and fulfilled in my life, especially as a parent.
I was so pleased with the results of this experiment that I decided to continue it for the long-term.
My hope with this experiment is beyond the checklist that I can get done every day. I want to develop some of the positive outcomes that the children in the marshmallow test had. I want to be self-reliant, organized, confident, smart, and financially successful. I want to be and feel in control of my life.
If you would like to join me in this challenge, please do so and share your successes and temporary setbacks to help each other along!