A sweet, puffy, glorious marshmallow.
Fifteen minutes, nose-to-pillowy-marshmallow-goodness can feel like an eternity to a three-year-old.
Yet, here they were. With nothing to do but stare at that marshmallow.
Oh, they had options,all right. They could eat the sweet treat now…and have instant gratification. OR…they could wait the five minutes until that nice lady came back and gave them a second marshmallow as a reward. The choice was all theirs.
It was to be the first experiment of many on the subject of willpower. And while the test seemed innocent enough, the implications of its results are remarkable.
See,years down the road, this same researcher would follow up on his test subjects -now grown- and learn that the children who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow- who had the willpower to last- would have better grades, lower BMI’s, better social lives, stronger careers and overall, more success in life.
It turns out, those who had the ability to control their impulses and distract themselves long enough to earn that second marshmallow seemed to turn into older children who studied rather than watched TV all day, who had tempers even enough to keep their friends around and work out conflict, and who could curb excessive eating and spending.
When I first read this study, I did what I imagine you might want to do upon hearing it- I sat my children in front of a marshmallow.
But you know what? I probably didn’t need to. I knew the ones who struggled with their impulses…who had a hard time with self-control. Interestingly enough, everyone seems to struggle with self-control in their own areas- some in the realm of waiting for treats, others in money, others in anger.
The real question, though, is not:
Are they or are they not a marshmallow eater?
Can one who is (currently) mastered by the marshmallow, become a marshmallow master?
See, the implications of strong willpower reach much farther than simply allowing us as parents to appear like we have it all together while we are in public, or avoiding post-holiday meltdowns at the in-law’s.
Helping our kids strengthen their willpower has far greater, wide-reaching effects on their lives. Giving them the tools to win that battle is an investment worth making.
And that’s the question that dozens of researchers have set out to determine since that first pioneering study. But, 50 years later, the researcher, Dr. Walter Mischel himself believes that self-control and willpower are learn-able traits.
“I have no doubt that self-control skills … are imminently teachable,” said Mischel. “It all comes down to training your mind to cool its emotional need for something it’s trying to avoid.” -Dr. Walter Mischel, in an interview with CNN
However, although we can train and teach various tactics for self-control, this is not a quick endeavor.
Maybe I’m not the only one.
When I have an epiphany like the one I shared in the last post, I expect it to change things.
In my dreams, my conversation with a friend may sound like this “Oh, willpower?” I say nonschalantly, “yeah, we conquered that awhile ago. Why?” And then I sip my coffee serenely, remembering those difficult weeks when we transitioned from weak wills to strong wills as a family….
But that is far from reality. Reality is that understanding where the battle lies means we are at least fighting on the right battlefield- in the right war…but it doesn’t end the war. Nope, it is just the beginning.
Why? Because willpower, studies show, is like a muscle.
And just as physical muscles are not built overnight, but through practice, effort, and plain hard work, so is the Willpower Muscle. My 8-year-old’s willpower is stronger today than it was when he was two, but he has a long way to go when it comes to strengthening it fully.
The building of willpower is a life-long game, not a sprint.
I have three sons- a 10 year old, an 8 year old, and a 2 year old. My “big boys,” as I like to call them, are a genuine help to me. They dismantle furniture (thankfully, only when I request it 🙂 !) and can move things around. They carry in groceries and chore animals. My toddler hurries behind them, eager to help with whatever he can, trying to grab a table leg as it’s lifted across the room or carry in the bananas from the store. But he struggles under the weight of a gallon of milk, and though the big boys humor him in asking him to help carry that table, they are really pulling all the weight.
Those years of hauling and carrying have built muscles on those big boys, allowing them a strength that far surpasses what they had when they were his age.
And the same goes for their willpower. Though we no longer have a struggle with biting and toy stealing, we still have mental shut-downs over math frustrations and anger with siblings.
And though my willpower is stronger than my bigger kids, I struggle yet with my own willpower battles. (I’m looking at you, mid-afternoon chocolate binge!)
And so, as we flip this whole thing on its head and determine to come alongside rather than go toe-to-toe, we have to realize that this is a long-term battle we are in. They are going to slip up. They are going to have setbacks. And they are going to have wins. And they are going to conquer. With each step, we can focus on strengthening that muscle.
Our calling is to persevere. To coach, inspire, encourage, stand firm, and walk it out with them.
Resources for you:
To see a neat video of kids struggling with eating marshmallows, and read a great interview with Dr. Mischel on the Marshmallow study, go over to this CNN article- it really is fascinating!
A few months ago I read the book Habits, by Charles Duhigg, which re-awakened this interest in willpower. There is a chapter on willpower that discusses many of these studies in-depth, and it is a fascinating read. Check it out here:
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business*
*This is an affiliate link.