How can you, as a parent, prepare your child with the best opportunity to succeed in life amidst such immense competition? Researchers at Stanford University wondered about this same complex question 40 years ago and developed an experiment to find out the answers.
The Marshmallow Experiment
The experiment, created by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, began by bringing each child into a private room, where a researcher offered them a marshmallow with a single condition attached. The researcher told the child that they would place the marshmallow on the table and leave the room; if, by the time the researcher returned, the marshmallow was still there, the child would be rewarded with another marshmallow. However, if the child ate the first marshmallow, they would not be rewarded with a second one.
The choice was straightforward: one marshmallow immediately or twice the joy later.
As you might expect, the researchers observed a few different responses to the experiment. Some children ate the marshmallow right away, while others were in the conflict of their lives, attempting to resist the allure of the marshmallow in front of them. Eventually, many of the children gave in, but some controlled themselves the entire time and patiently awaited their reward. The entire study came to be known as "The Marshmallow Experiment," and was published in 1972.
However, the real value of the experiment would be identified years after the study was published, when the child-participants were fully grown. The children who waited for the second marshmallow - that is, those who exhibited "delayed gratification"--often ended up with higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, better response to stress, and higher social skills.
The researchers continued to follow the progress of each child throughout adulthood and found that those who waited patiently for the second marshmallow tended to exceed the others in nearly all aspects of life. The series of experiments clearly demonstrated that delayed gratification is critical to success in life.
"Instant gratification seems to be the modus operandi of the present day, especially for the fast-paced millennial culture that I am a part of. However, as the age-old saying goes, anything good takes hard work and time," said Lily Nathanson, customer success manager at Botify.
"A life led through instant gratification, as I've seen in my life, is not fulfilling and creates some toxic behaviors. Someone who understands delayed gratification and can grasp the value of it early in life is a rare gift, and is someone worth knowing and spending time with because it usually means that person is grounded, humble and respects the importance of hard work."
There are many ways delayed gratification can benefit us in our day to day lives. For example, if you refrain from eating unhealthy food when the impulse arises, you will be more fit and healthy in the long-term.
If you hold off from binge watching that new series on Netflix, you will be more productive in your work. Delayed gratification often means putting more important tasks higher on your priorities list, which often results in more positive outcomes, be it in your health, profession, or family life.
"As parents, it's our responsibility to empower our own children with life skills to help them achieve the most out of life," said Adam Schwartz, certified EFT practitioner, life coach, and strategic interventionist at EFTCOACH.me. "A big part of that, is protecting them from influences that might compromise their ability to develop the power of restraint and the capacity to say 'no.'"
In today's highly technological environment, Schwartz added, it's particularly important to limit children's time on devices as to eliminate distractions from more pressing matters that should come as priorities. Instead, teaching them that their desired activities should come after productive ones is key.
"The importance of learning patience and how to exercise self-control is crucial to living a happy life," he said. "It is therefore imperative that we successfully transmit these principles to our future generations."
Teaching Your Children Delayed Gratification
How can parents best impart these values and behaviors on their children? Teaching your children delayed gratification is about disciplining them to first complete important tasks rather than those that are easier or more pleasurable to them.
A great way to do this is by creating an environment where you consistently reward your children for their hard work. In the study itself, the researchers exposed the children to a reliable environment where they were promised something in exchange for exhibiting will power and then delivered on it.
In other words, actively establish a system for delayed gratification in your young one's brain by promising small rewards for any work done and then delivering on it. If you keep doing this, their brain will automatically gravitate toward doing hard work first; it's classical conditioning at work.
**Abhik Shome contributed to this article.