Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?

What does the Marshmallow test tell us about self control in children?

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” - Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel died earlier this month at the age of 88, so I've been fielding a lot of questions about the Marshmallow test, Mischel's most famous research. Today, I'll describe the Marshmallow test and why it's useful for every parent to understand. In my next post, we'll explore how children actually develop self-control.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

What does the marshmallow test have to do with self-control? Walter Mischel was a Stanford professor and researcher who was interested in how children learn the skills to delay gratification and achieve their goals. What he found is that self-control has a lot to do with managing emotions.

Mischel found that when young children are offered a choice between one or two treats they like, such as marshmallows or cookies, they always choose two. Mischel then told the children in his studies “Here is one treat on this plate, but look -- there are additional treats in this tin. I need to leave the room for a few minutes. If you don’t eat this treat while I’m gone, when I come back I will give you an additional treat from the tin. If you can’t wait to eat this one, that’s fine, but you won’t get a second treat. If you can wait, then when I come back, I will give you the second treat as well as this one.”

Virtually all toddlers will eat the first treat as soon as the researcher leaves the room. They can’t wait, no matter how much they want the second treat, for the same reason they can’t always follow your rules at home. They may very much want to, but their brain development isn’t sufficient for them to control their own impulses, even to meet a goal that is important to them.

Even once they’re preschoolers, most kids -- 70% -- can’t control their impulses enough to avoid eating the first treat, no matter how much they also want the second one.

I admit that when I first heard about this experiment I thought it was a bit cruel, and I wondered why we read so much into it. After all, what if the child doesn’t like marshmallows, or doesn't WANT the second cookie? And who cares if they can resist eating it?

But here's the thing. Once we find a treat the child likes, virtually all young children want the second treat, so the question becomes whether the child can manage his impulses in order to meet his own goals. The treat experiment is interesting because it shows us whether the child has developed his rational frontal cortex sufficiently to regulate his emotions, his anxiety about getting the treat, and his impulses. This huge accomplishment is an indicator of the child’s emerging self-mastery, which allows him, in turn, to master the world. (Here's an in-depth article from the New Yorker on this experiment.)

Remember, 30% of preschoolers CAN control themselves enough to not eat the treat. What can we learn from them?

Studies show that these four year olds do better throughout school, better with peers, and are rated by parents as more cooperative. They’re better at concentrating, at screening out distractions. As they grow, they’re more competent, confident, and happier. They even score an average of 200 points higher on their SATS, which isn’t really surprising given that they’re higher-achieving students and better at regulating their own anxiety. In fact, the marshmallow test predicts academic achievement better than IQ does.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

“The more seconds they waited at age 4 or 5, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive function in adolescence,” Mischel wrote in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

Forty years later the kids who succeeded at managing their impulses in the face of temptation are thinner, healthier, wealthier and more accomplished. But what matters to me is that they're happier. Which isn't so surprising, given that their lives work better. Clearly, there's something important here for all parents to understand.

The Marshmallow test isn't just about the ability to "delay gratification," as it is often described. And it isn't about "self-discipline" in the sense that Alfie Kohn defines it: "marshaling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." As Mischel said, his test measured a child's ability to manage her "hot emotions" so that she could make a given situation work for her and reach her OWN goals. In other words, this is not about a child meeting someone else's expectations. It is about the child's ability to manage herself to reach her own goals in life.

It’s easy to see why the ability to control their impulses helps kids become happier. A child who can regulate his emotions can control his behavior so he's more likely to get what he wants out of life.

But this does NOT mean that if your child grabs the treat and eats it, they'll never be able to manage themselves. The Bing Nursery School where the studies were done emphasizes that "These studies demystified willpower and showed how self-control and emotion regulation could be enhanced, taught and learned, beginning very early in life, even by children who initially had much difficulty delaying gratification."

So how can you help your child learn self-control and emotion regulation?

It's possible that some children may be born with an advantage. Brain scans find actual physical differences between adults who were able, at age four, to delay eating the treat, and those who weren't. The prefrontal cortex was more active in high delayers and the ventral striatum was more active in low delayers when they were trying to control their responses to alluring temptations.

But many researchers believe these brain differences are the result of children "practicing" -- using the brain differently -- during the first four years of life. The brain is taking shape in response to our use of it at all ages, and especially in the first five years. So the repeated experience of choosing to control an impulse in order to achieve a higher goal would have the effect of strengthening the prefrontal cortex. Practicing self-discipline -- but it must be initiated by the child and be for something the child wants, not for something we want -- builds the brain muscle to self-regulate. We'll talk more about this in our next post.

It also turns out that we can help children become more successful at the marshmallow task by teaching them simple techniques to manage their minds. Of course, we don't yet know how well these learned techniques for this specific task translate into more control in real life. What we know about the brain suggests that a child would need to "practice" those techniques regularly to sustain those skills.

So the question is, regardless of your child's innate ability, how can you raise a child who can manage her emotions, anxiety and impulses so that she can manage her behavior to accomplish her goals? We'll dig into the answer to that question in our next post, How to Help Your Child Develop Self Control. For today, just notice your own ability to manage your emotions and behavior. (Yes, that's a clue!)


How can I replicate the Marshmallow Test at home to see if my preschooler will be successful in life?

You can't! Seriously, this test was not done with parents, but with a specific lab protocol. And if this is your focus, you're missing the point. The point is that children CAN develop the ability to self-regulate in early childhood and it will help them achieve their goals in life. The question is HOW to help them develop that ability (which is our next post.) If you're doing those things, then you don't have to test your child. You know they're developing the emotional regulation to be successful and happy. So there's no need to test your child; just ask yourself if you as the parent are doing the things we talk about in the next post.

Wasn't there follow-up research that showed that the child has to trust that the adult promising the double treat will really deliver?

Yes! If the researcher made himself seem unreliable (for instance, by promising toys that turned out not to be in the room), the children were much more likely to eat the first treat immediately. That's a smart response if you don't trust the adult to keep their promises. And certainly some children have grown up in situations where if you don't eat now, there might not be food later, so they've learned that it's smarter to go for immediate gratification. But none of this invalidates Mischel's findings that the children who were able to delay eating the treat -- when they wanted to -- were also able to be more successful throughout life.

I've heard that the Marshmallow test is actually just a test of intelligence, not ability to self-manage, which would explain the higher SAT scores and grades.

Well, the kids did have to come up with strategies to avoid eating the marshmallow, and it certainly makes sense that children who had more intellectual resource would be more successful at that. These strategies ranged from stroking the marshmallow lovingly (guess how long it took to reach the child's mouth?) to covering the marshmallow so it wasn't visible and focusing on a toy (which, yes, was an effective strategy to resist eating the treat.) But the ability to distract themselves with strategies wouldn't be a simple question of IQ; it might well have more to do with creativity, and the emotional regulation to hold their impulses in check.

Don't forget that the high-delayers were also more successful with peers, more cooperative with parents and physically healthier as adults, all of which would probably have more to do with emotional regulation than with IQ. So we're talking about success in many areas of life, not just IQ-related.

Finally, in Mischel's original sample, the children were all from families who either worked at Stanford or were grad students, so they were all, as Mischel himself said, from a highly intelligent subsection of the population. And yet even within this cohort, there were significant differences in outcome -- which would be unlikely to come just from intelligence, since all of these kids would have scored much higher than average on IQ tests.

How come French kids are better at the Marshmallow test?

Actually, they aren't! You may have read about the marshmallow test in the book Bringing Up Bébé, where Pam Druckerman quotes Walter Mischel, the originator of the Marshmallow test, as support for her conclusion that Parisians, beginning when they're children, have more self control than Americans. But Mischel didn't actually test French children, and the Marshmallow test doesn't actually support Druckerman's conclusions about how kids develop self control. Druckerman claims that self-control comes from the French practice of training kids to wait for attention and follow rigid schedules, but there's no evidence of that, and lots of evidence that other factors are what help kids develop self-control. Mischel himself ascribed self-control to "the ability to regulate hot emotions" which has nothing to do with being taught to wait for attention; in fact quite the opposite. We'll talk more about this in the next post.

More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today