The May 18, 2009 issue of New Yorker ran a fascinating article about an experiment that child psychologists in the 1960s use to test the ability of four year olds to exert self control. The psychologist who designed the experiment later expanded it into a longitudinal study and realized that the ability to show self control at 4 is actually a fair predictor of future success in life (here’s the link to the NY’er article)
This ingenious experiment is easy to run on your own child, and takes only about 5-10 minutes. It goes something like this: Offer a child something tempting to eat tell them they are free to eat that delicious something right now. But then tell them that you have something to do upstairs (change clothes, fold some clothes, whatever) and when you come back in 5-10 minutes if they have not eaten the treat, they can have a second one. When the experiment was conducted at Stanford decades ago, only about 30 percent of children tested could hold out long enough for the second treat. Those 70% who failed usually failed very quickly. Here’s a link to kids taking the “marshmallow test” on youtube (I used licorice, they used marshmallows but it is the same idea).
Researchers began tracking their little subjects and later realized that those who successfully held out for the second treat would later be more successful in life because they were able to control themselves and delay gratification (which is a useful skill to have if you want to save for retirement, complete tasks that require patience, etc). Those who jumped at the first cookie thus forfeiting the second seemed to go on to have more behavioral problems in life, more weight problems, and more likely to look for other forms of instant gratifications, including drugs. In fact, according to the article:
The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
Here’s what happened when I ran the experiment on my four-year-old nephew, who is an instant-gratification sort of child with a unrelenting sweet tooth. One day before we were about to leave for the playground, I gave him a piece of licorice. Without telling him that he was being tested, I explained to him that I had to go upstairs and change into playground clothes and would be back to give him a second piece of licorice. I went upstairs while my three older kids stayed downstairs and watched him struggle to hold out for the second piece. Similar to those children at Stanford in the 1960s, he coped with his mighty struggle by walking around the house while holding the licorice an inch from his face as if he were trying to hypnotize himself with it. After a few minutes went by and he sensed that I was about to return, he stood at the bottom of the staircase leading up to my bedroom and triumphantly held the uneaten licorice over his head. This success instantly thrust him into the running for an appointment to the Supreme Court in 2055.
I reported the whole affair to my brother (who by coincidence had also read the New Yorker article) who was very gratified to hear that his boy had passed the test. Same goes for my sister-in-law who had a hard time imagining her child exerting sufficient self control. We all found it a very interesting experiment and cause for celebration. Conversely, if he failed the exam we probably would have been disappointed for a little while and, more importantly, a little more aware of the importance of self control and self gratification.
Does your child have it to succeed in life? One way to find out. Report back to me in the Comments section how your child fared.