I first read about the “marshmallow test” in Kevin Wilson’s book, “Perfect Little World.” It’s a novel about an experimental school/child-rearing compound that is so idealistic it’s destined to fail. The book is fiction, but the marshmallow test is not.
The psychological study conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel presents children with two choices: immediately eat the marshmallow in front of you or wait for a determined number of minutes and get two marshmallows. Mischel observed that those who could delay their gratification tended to do better later in life, achieving greater academic success and making healthier lifestyle choices. It was cited as proof that will power leads to a better life. Since its publication, however, there have been multiple counter-experiments to challenge the study’s accuracy. But it does raise the question: What do you do if you have a child with no self-control?
Not long ago I found myself hovering in the shadows of the pool’s patio while my 5-year-old twins took their first swim lesson. Parents were supposed to stay out of sight so the kids didn’t get distracted, but from what I was hearing, my presence (or lack thereof) wasn’t the problem.
“Don’t touch the vent,” the coach said. My son laughed, and over the laughing came the sound of splashing as he did it again. “No. Leave the vent alone.” Another splash. “If you don’t stop playing with the vent you’ll have to sit out.” The coach, normally unflappable, had been cheery at first, and then less so as the lesson continued. After then 10th warning, I heard: “Okay. Out.”
I closed my eyes and leaned back against the chaise lounge. This was just one example of my son’s inability to exert even a smidgen of self-control. It’s both exhausting to parent and exhausting to live, because he truly can’t seem to help himself.
The idea of “self-control” implies a tightening of one’s grip and staying in command of one’s body and mind. It connotes a sort of noble restraint. However, to ask my son to sit still for five minutes without incentive or distraction is to invite failure. His twin sister can do it. But self-control for her is not necessarily control at all. It’s part of her personality. She likes routine and order and clear parameters. She wants a play-by-play of what’s on the schedule for the day because this knowledge puts her at ease. Her brother, on the other hand, would prefer not to know. He feels hemmed in by the mere thought of a preplanned day.
My son’s lack of self-control in certain situations doesn’t, as Mischel’s study once suggested, indicate he has no potential for future success. It simply proves he desires different things than his sister. While genetics isn’t everything, studies show our ability to withstand instant gratification is in part determined by our DNA. If I’m honest, this comes as a bit of relief because it helps me understand why the strategies that work with his sister don’t work with him. While she responds to order and praise, he responds to redirection. This requires a small but crucial tweak in how I parent him.
It turns out that the kids who succeeded in Mischel’s experiment didn’t simply power through. They found ways around the temptation, either by looking anywhere but at the marshmallow or by imagining the marshmallow as a toy or a picture, something not real and therefore less tempting. Distraction and distance — these were the real keys to self-control.
This idea of redirection over resistance is fairly basic. It’s why you can’t expect yourself to walk away empty-handed from a pantry full of Girl Scout cookies or a break room filled with last year’s Halloween candy. It’s why all devices must be turned off at the dinner table. It’s why completing homework in front of the television is almost impossible. It also explains why we can’t simply say, “No, don’t do that” to a child and expect universal and instant success.
For my son to succeed in swim lessons he needed distance from those vents. At his next lesson, I asked the coach to move him farther down the side of the pool where there was nothing but him and water and clear blue sky. He did just fine.
I tried the same strategy on a long car ride when he wouldn’t stop fiddling with his seat belt. We had already pulled over to have a very long talk about why the seat belt on his car seat had to stay exactly as it was. I could see him in the rear view mirror trying to resist. I needed him to stay safe, but he couldn’t leave it alone. We were at an impasse. Fortunately, road trip games were invented to minimize misbehavior as much as boredom. The license plate game got us the rest of the way. While he focused on searching for Alaska he forgot all about that seat belt.
I know that self-control is a necessity. Everyone must learn it. But everyone does not master every skill in the same way or at the same age. The best teachers have already figured this out. They know how to meet each child’s particular needs, whatever they may be. At his age and with his personality, I had to let go of the expectation that my son would power through every temptation.
If given a marshmallow, more often than not, he’s going to eat it. My job is not to change his personality, but to help him find ways to work with what he’s got and grow from there.