Another Take on the Marshmallow Experiment

Why Trust is a Critical Ingredient in Self-Control

“Moot!” my son exclaimed happily. “More moot!” In order to make sure that he got his message through to me he proudly showed me his empty milk glass. I reassured him that I would return to the dining room with more milk after I checked in on dinner simmering on the stove. For a thirsty two-year-old, “right back” can feel like an eternity.

My son happily gulped down the milk upon my return. On one level, this was a benign and insignificant interaction. On another level, he was learning important lessons from a couple of genius experiments. The first one, “When I use the word ‘Moot’ will my mom bring me that delicious white stuff?” The second, more powerful, test, “Is my mom reliable? Can I trust her to follow through?”

I am not saying that if I had gotten distracted in the kitchen that he never would have trusted me again. Talk about pressure! But this interaction, combined with thousands in his early years, will teach him lessons that he will carry forward. The cumulative knowledge he gains will form powerful templates that will influence his behavior for years to come.

Are people trustworthy and reliable? Do they follow through on what they say they will do? Is the world safe and predictable?

Child eating marshmallows, reminiscent of the famous marshmallow experiment at Stanford in the 1970s.

Broken promises, marshmallows, and delay of gratification.

Let’s turn now from milk to marshmallows. We’ve written extensively about the marshmallow test, a classic experiment that taught us about the important role that self-discipline plays in children’s success. We’ve always emphasized that the marshmallow experiment is not a diagnostic tool although it can be a fun way to introduce the concept of self-discipline to your kids. This is because self-discipline is not an innate or fixed trait. Temperament plays a role, but overall it is an internal skill set that our kids can practice. As parents, we are our kids’ most important coaches.

But that is not the only lesson we’ve learned from marshmallows. A team of researchers at the University of Rochester revisited the marshmallow test a few years ago, introducing a new element to the experiment’s design. Just before the test, some of the children had an interaction with a reliable adult and others with an unreliable one. One group of kids was promised fun art supplies and stickers that never appeared while the other was given the supplies as promised.

This change to the experiment design had a major impact on children’s willingness to wait for the second marshmallow. Only one of the kids who had experienced an unreliable adult decided to wait it out while over half of the kids who experienced a reliable interaction earned the two-marshmallow prize.

You have to hand it to the kids – this reflects a very rational decision-making process. Why would I wait for the second marshmallow if I don’t trust that it will ever arrive?

Self-discipline is distributed in relationships.

Marshmallows first taught us about the importance of self-discipline. Now they are teaching us about one of the core ingredients kids need to build it: trust.

It begs us to ask the question: Do good things come to all children who wait?

We can’t blame kids for their inability to delay gratification if the world hasn’t taught them that this practice yields positive outcomes. Whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at. No single interaction in the real world is going to shape a child’s ability to delay gratification but ongoing lessons about trust and reliability certainly will.

Trust us.

Our kids don’t build self-discipline and other executive function skills in a vacuum. They do so in families, schools, neighborhoods, and communities.

As I watched my son happily gulp down his milk I became acutely aware of and grateful for the external resources that support my capacity to built trust with this tiny person–the financial resources to give him all the milk he needs, the housing that gives him a sense of home and stability, and the jobs that enable me to both afford and be present for dinnertime.

We can’t and shouldn’t get our kids everything they want. The marshmallow prize is not the end game. Giving our kids consistent and predictable limits and consequences are as important as reliable rewards. But we should strive to ensure that all kids get everything they need, learn that us adults mean what we say, that we do out best to follow through on our commitments, that we apologize when we don’t or can’t, and that good things can come to those who wait.

Tips for building trust at home

  • Connect. Predictable and close relationships with caregivers is the foundation of trust. Spend one-on-one time with your child. Being cued in to your child’s emotional state enriches your relationship and ensures that it feels like bedrock. This is true for tots and teenagers alike.
  • Listen. When our kids feel heard and acknowledged they feel more secure, in control, and communicative.
  • Talk about trust. What does it look like? What do we do when it is broken? How do we mend and repair?
  • Tell the truth. We don’t need to tell our kids everything, but being trustworthy means saying what we mean.
  • Apologize when you need to. We aren’t perfect and shouldn’t try to be. Apologizing shows that we are committed to mending and repairing broken trust.
  • Establish predictable routines if possible. You don’t have to be locked in to a rigid schedule, but repetition involves predictability, stability, and comfort. If predictability isn’t possible right now, think of ways to create small daily rituals or interactions your child can count on even amidst lots of change.
  • Follow through. Make good on your promises – for both rewards and boundaries. The strategy of limits and consequences helps you avoid power struggles and increase predictability.
  • Avoid empty threats. Choose consequences you can live with and follow through on. If I heatedly tell my teen that she won’t be able to drive for a year, I’ve backed myself into a corner it is hard to get out of.
  • Nurture a village. A network of caring adults around each child increases their sense of security and safety. It will also increase your own.

Building trust into our communities

We don’t parent in a vacuum and investing in families ensures that everyone has the means to build trust. On a community level, we can set all families up for success by providing:

  • Stable housing for all families.
  • Affordable childcare.
  • Opportunities for economic self-sufficiency.
  • Strong relationships between schools and parents.
  • Early childhood programs that enable parents and children to get support.
  • Support for parents of adolescents – just because our kids are older doesn’t mean we don’t still need help!