Parents' Choice

One Marshmallow, Or Two?

By Susan Beacham

Money Savvy PigThe Marshmallow Study, conducted in the 1960’s by Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel, demonstrated how important self-discipline is to lifelong success. He started his longitudinal study by offering a group of 4-year-olds one marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for him to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. The “errand” took about fifteen to twenty minutes. The theory was that those children who could wait would demonstrate that they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse.

How important is your child’s ability to delay immediate gratification? (Very important.) Is self-discipline a predictor of a child’s success later in life? (Yes.) Can a child who does not know how to delay immediate gratification be taught this skill? (Absolutely.)

Ok. Let’s take a moment and think about the child in our lives before I give you the results of the study. Close your eyes, visualize your child in The Marshmallow Study room chair. Is she eating? Is he waiting? We all know exactly what our children will do – or do we?

Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learnedAbout fourteen years later, when the children in the experiment graduated from high school, the Marshmallow Study revealed startling differences between the two groups: the children who waited and did not gobble up the single marshmallow, were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had developed the habits of successful adults. The habits, the centerpiece of which is delayed gratification, point to more thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction which leads to higher incomes, and better health.

The children who did NOT wait were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident. And, they were still unable to delay immediate gratification. Worse yet, these “one marshmallow” kids scored an average of 210 points less on SAT tests. Why? Distraction and the desire for instant gratification got in the way of good, focused study time. If not corrected, lack of impulse control will continue to trip these kids up throughout life, resulting in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and as a result low income, bad health and all around frustration with life.

OK. Back to you and the child in your life. If you have a child who is clearly going to be a one-marshmallow kind of kid, don’t despair. Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learned. Use your playtime to teach this skill. Choose toys and books and media that reinforce self-discipline (sidebar of examples?), and reward the behaviors daily. Molding desired behavior when children are young and receptive is far easier than the far more challenging work required to change behavior when they are older and perhaps -how can we put it – less receptive to Mom or Dad’s instruction.

Giving a child the tools with which to think and make choices is very powerful and very effective.We founded Money Savvy Generation to help children, and their parents learn the skill and art of delayed gratification painlessly. The Money Savvy Pig™, a four-chambered piggybank with four tummies give a child four choices each time they have money to deposit - Save, Spend, Donate or Invest. Using the stickers that come with Money Savvy Pig to set goals for the money choices prompts the child to think about their choices, and their consequences. No more one choice wonder piggybanks, but rather a bank with four choices for money that help delay the gratification by giving the child a command to “think” about what they want to do with the money they have in hand. Giving a child the tools with which to think and make choices is very powerful and very effective.

If your kids are ‘tweens or teens and have been caught up in the daily barrage of the “I want, therefore I need” spending syndrome, try this riddle.

Ask your child to record what they spend on things they want every day for a week. They can even estimate at the end of each day before they go to bed what that dollar amount is. Typically these expenses are in the "I want" category, such as snack food or a trinket, not the "I need" category as in laces for those overly expensive sneakers. At the end of the week sit down and see if they have spent at least $4 a day on "I wants." Chances are they have spent that, and then some. Then, ask them to quickly answer this multiple choice test - without using a calculator:

At age 12 you decide not to buy soda or extra snacks - either during the school week or on weekends or vacations. You save $4.00 a day. You put $4 a day in a savings vehicle such as a long-term IRA CD at five percent annual interest and leave it alone. At age 67, your savings is:

(a) $1,159
(b) $25,355
(c) $80,352
(d) $427,025

Answer: (d), or $427,025. Note that $80,352 is from the daily deposits and the remaining $346,673 is interest!

Once you tell them the answer, or they realize it themselves, their eyes will widen with renewed respect for the power and importance of saving – aka delayed gratification and self-discipline.

If we can instill these valuable lessons, we will equip our children with lifelong skills. We will be able to do what every parent hopes– deliver our child into a successful adulthood having learned first-hand the power of two marshmallows.

To teach your kids more about money management, don't miss these Parents' Choice award-winning products >


About the Author
Susan Beacham is the founder and CEO of Money Savvy Generation, a financial education company that provides innovative products and services to help parents and educators teach children the basic skills of personal finance,
Copyright © 2009 Parents' Choice Foundation. All rights reserved.