One thing that I love about psychology is all the interesting studies that have been conducted over the years. Some of them are quite interesting, some of them are a bit terrifying, some of them are sad and others are entertaining. One of my favorites, without a doubt, is the marshmallow test. This is an experiment that psychologists did with younger kids and is designed to teach and test instant gratification versus delayed rewards. Basically, the kids were given a marshmallow and were told that they could get the marshmallow whenever they wanted but if they waited a certain amount of time, 10 to 15 minutes, they would get a second treat like a cookie or another marshmallow. The study showed that the kids that were able to wait the time and get the second treat were generally more successful in life.
I like this test because it’s really easy to duplicate which means there are some really entertaining videos online; I highly recommend watching some of them because the kids are pretty fun to watch. I also like this test because it’s really easy for parents to do at home if they want to teach delayed reward to their kids. All you really need is a bag of marshmallows. You can even film it and keep the video in your home movie folder on your computer. I often talk to a lot of parents that don’t think their child will be able to last the 10 minutes required for them to get the second treat which is exactly why I tell parents they should do this. Both the amount of time and the number of second treats can be adjusted. Let me explain.
So let’s say that you try this at home and your kid goes ahead and gobbles up the first marshmallow without waiting. One of the keys here is to not get upset, don’t scold them or get angry, remain indifferent. After all, they are the one that didn’t hold out for the reward. The next time you do it, offer them two treats if they hold out and lower the time just a little bit. Create a greater incentive and a shorter period of time and this will hopefully show them how good it feels to wait for the long term reward instead of just going for the instant gratification. All the variables can be adjusted, the reward and the waiting time and the goal being that you want your kids to hold out for the second treat. Doing it a couple of times and getting them to wait for the second treat can provide them with a valuable lesson in delayed rewards.
In psychology and counseling, there is a lot of emphasis for young people to learn to develop ability to achieve delayed rewards. Remember when you were younger and you wanted something like a toy that you ordered from a cereal box? You had to save three bucks, collect two box tops, stuff it all in an envelope, put stamps on the envelope, mail it and wait 6 to 8 weeks for your order to be processed and your toy to arrive. When we were young, we were forced to learn delayed reward. There wasn’t any other available options. You couldn’t order something on the internet, there was no internet! And now it’s all on demand, instant streaming, instant gratification everywhere. Technology and the instant gratification that it provides isn’t going anywhere and it’s leaving our kids feeling frustrated when they have to earn something like a diploma or save money for that pair of shoes they want. Unfortunately, I do see a lot of kids that give up on goals and quit easily and quickly. It’s true that some of them expect life to be fun and instantly rewarding and not to mention easy.
I don’t think it’s fair to blame them, they were given this instantly gratifying world and I don’t think it’s fair for us to expect them to do well with it on their own; without being taught. While it can be easy to be critical of them, I think if we are honest, we would have been the same way if we grew up with cell phones. They aren’t even phones anymore, they are a passport to the information superhighway and they also happen to make phone calls if needed. As a parent, it primarily falls onto you to help teach them delayed reward. I know, it’s frustrating, kids don’t come with manuals. You can’t just flip to the chapter on teaching delayed rewards and it can’t be taught through criticism, scolding or lectures. The marshmallow test is one way you can do it when they are young. If you have young kids, you should try it!
Thank you for taking the time to read this article, I hope you found it to be informative and helpful. I try to publish new content each week on teen issues, parenting, conflict resolution and much more. You can stay in the loop by subscribing on my website. At Salt City Counseling, my goal is to heal homes so I hope you will call me if you are in need of professional help in your family