The Marshmallow Test

 

By: Esther Fuchs, LCSW

 

            “I want my child to be happy, successful in school, and accepted by classmates.”

These are the words I hear from almost every parent in the  initial interview when I begin working with them and their children around an adjustment issue. As parents we all want our children to be happy and grow up to be fully functioning, successful adults.

            Psychologists are researching whether there is a correlation between happiness and success in life. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and researcher at Harvard University, conducted a “longitudinal” experiment called “The Marshmallow Test,” during which an experimenter went into a room, sat down with a child, held up a marshmallow and said, “you can have this one marshmallow right now or you can wait until I get back and then have two marshmallows.” the experimenter left the room while the child's behavior was being videotaped.

            At the conclusion of the experimenter, the children were divided into two groups: the ones who immediately ate the marshmallow, and the ones who waited and were rewarded with the second marshmallow. They then followed these children for ten years to track their academic and social development. The group that was able to wait for the second marshmallow became far more successful in life than the group that acted based on the immediate gratification of eating the single marshmallow placed in front of them.

            The research found that the ability to wait for the second marshmallow was a very strong predictor of their success in school, social adaptation, popularity and happiness. Many different studies have validated that the ability to say no to yourself temporarily and delay gratification, indeed, a strong predictor of success in many important areas of life.

            Like the ability to delay gratification, resilience is another important life skill that parents want to impart to their children. In Martin Seligman's book, “The Optimistic Child,” he provides many tools to empower parents to transmit a learned sense of optimism to their children. He emphasizes that if we always make things right and never give them a chance to stumble and fall, they will not have an opportunity to develop a sense of resilience. Just like muscles need to be developed and worked slowly, so too, a child needs to experience failure and rebound from failure. Children are keen observers of their parents' behaviors. If they watch you struggle and remain optimistic,  they will learn that to succeed we need to struggle, and that true happiness comes from aiming for and achieving goals.

            Seligman also discourages parents from being quick to fix things for their children, whether its a Lego creation or a science project. He cautions that if parents do create a pattern of jumping in, they will be sending the message of: When things don't go the way you want, give up and let someone else rescue you.

            Parents may be engaging in this rescue behavior with the intentions of building the child's self esteem, but the best way to accomplish this in the face of failure is to validate the childrens' feelings, make sure the child feels understood and then guide them toward problem solving and understanding that this is not a permanent problem. By doing this, you are shaping your children's explanatory style (the way he understands the world). You are helping your child understand that there are failures, and that they happen to all of us, yet we need to problem solve and try to figure it out.  By doing this, you are empowering your child and giving him a key tool to experience true happiness in his life.

            We try our best to help our children, yet children will inevitably be forced to face their own struggles. If we can teach our children how to handle stress and failure, we impart tools for life. When your children seek answers, reassure them that despite the hardships faced, your love is unconditional and forever. You are there for them and you will keep them safe.

            Your children hear your words, observe your actions and watch your reactions. If you do not allow challenges to get you down, your children will pick up on your positive attitude, and will develop the power of resilience.

 

Esther Fuchs, LCSW is in private practice with over25 years of experience providing Torah and evidence based practice to families and children. She can be reached at 917-348-9809