Because I am a high school principal, I am often asked by parents of younger children what kids need to "know" in order to be successful in high school. "What can we work with our kids on now," they ask, "which will make the biggest difference later?"
I often respond "Read to your child, and instill a love of reading in them." There's little doubt that kids who develop good reading skills early in life end up more successful later on. But lately, I've also been talking to parents about an exceptionally important character trait we must help our children develop, too.
In a famous study at Stanford University in 1972, Dr. Walter Michel created a simple test of the ability of four year old children to control impulses and delay gratification. Children were taken one at a time into a room with a one-way mirror. They were shown a marshmallow. The experimenter told them he had to leave and that they could have the marshmallow right then, but if they waited for the experimenter to return from an errand, they could have two marshmallows. One marshmallow was left on a table in front of them. Two out of every three children couldn't wait, and grabbed the available marshmallow before the experimenter returned, some within seconds of person leaving. Approximately one-third waited up to fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return. Here's a simulation of the experiment done more recently, as each kid tries to resist temptation, with some amusing footage:
Funny stuff! But the real bombshell came in the follow up study years later, when interviewers measured how the kids in the original study were doing as students. Those who delayed gratification for the full fifteen minutes scored on average 210 points higher on the SAT tests than those who gave in quickly--an astonishing difference given the length of time between testings. And these same children were judged better able to handle stress and cope with frustration during adolescence. In short, they were happier young adults, with more opportunity in front of them.
As someone who has worked with teenagers the last 26 years, I don't find the conclusions of this study startling. There are marked positives in academic outcomes from students who are able to defer what is more pleasurable and complete the work in front of them. These are the students who begin writing papers earlier than the night before, who do their homework before they watch TV, who fight through boredom in school, who are willing to keep trying new approaches to solve problems and who come to tutorials when they don't understand a concept.
At the same time, the very strong correlation of delaying gratification with academic success as shown by the study--the sheer magnitude in importance of that one variable--is disturbing when one realizes how poorly we live by that principle as a society. The explosive growth of the fast food industry in the last twenty five years, the fact that the average American carries a debt of $8,562 on their credit cards (including undergraduates, without a full time job, who have an average balance of $2,200, not counting their college loans--yikes!), the emphasis on the "instant" (instant food, microwave ovens, video-on-demand, etc.) all suggest we don't delay gratification as adults, much less mentor our children in that skill!
Still, parents can make a big difference. Help them save their money. If you can still find one, the old piggy banks which require breaking the bank to access the money are useful. Force them to do their chores before lounging around the house or leaving the house to play with friends. Make sure homework is done before TV. Talk to them honestly about not being able to afford a new car, or an expensive vacation, so they see that you, too, are not able to do some of what you'd like to do. Help them understand in life, there are no "easy" buttons.
The evidence is in: teaching our children to delay gratification is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.