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The Marshmallow Story

The following is taken from Dr. David Walsh and the National Institute on Media and the Family’s “Say Yes to No” campaign. This story illustrates the importance of being able to teach delay of gratification, patience and learning to deal with disappointment – all of which are learned from teaching “No.”

“The developmental importance of a child’s ability to delay gratification became clear in a famous 1960’s Stanford University experiment. Four-year-olds came into a room where the experimenter gave the child a choice.

“Ok, here’s a marshmallow,” he said. “You can eat this marshmallow now or you can not eat this marshmallow now and when I come back I will give you another marshmallow. If you eat the first one now, I’m not going to give you another one.”

This presented a difficult choice for your average four-year-old: “Do I delay gratification and get two marshmallows, or do I eat the one in front of me right now?”

Some of the children were unable to resist the temptation. They ate their marshmallows within seconds or minutes after the experimenter left the room. Other kids did everything they could to resist that temptation. They sang songs and did not even look at the marshmallow. They did anything they could to avoid eating that marshmallow. They were able to delay that gratification in order to get the reward of the second marshmallow.

The scientists kept track of these children from age four all the way up to age eighteen. at the age of twelve, those kids who as four-year-olds showed restraint and did not eat the first marshmallow still had the self-discipline to delay gratification. They were happier. They were more successful in school. The kids who ate the first marshmallow and were not able to delay gratification tended at age twelve to have more behavioral problems. They were still unable to set limits for themselves. At the age of eighteen, the kids who had the self-discipline to delay gratification as four-year-olds were predictably more successful in school and more competent in a number of areas that the other kids weren’t.

The skills of self-discipline and limits that we teach our kids early in life equip them with the competence they need to pursue healthy, productive and successful lives.”