Want your kids to go to Harvard? Give them marshmallows!

In one famous study, a group of four year olds were offered 1 marshmallow each. They were told they could eat the marshmallow right away.  However, if they waited 10 minutes before eating it, they would be given 2 marshmallows!

Most of the kids choose to eat the single marshmallow. (Perhaps that’s no big surprise.)  But one third of the kids waited.

Years later, the kids who waited to eat their marshmallows scored an average of 210 points higher on their verbal and math SAT tests than kids who ate their treats right away!

Learning impulse control helps kids develop a range of superior emotional and social skills.

OK.  So marshmallows don’t make kids smart.  In fact, the food is irrelevant.  The study just used marshmallows to see which kids had learned to control their desires. (The study has been reproduced using other goodies.)

It turns out that learning impulse control at an early age is also related to:

  • Being able to cope with adversity and stress
  • Self-confidence
  • Diligence
  • Self-reliance
  • Assertiveness
  • The ability to cope with frustration
  • Trustworthiness
  • The ability to work well under pressure
  • Dependability
  • Responding to reason
  • High levels of concentration
  • Being an eager learner
  • Academic competence
  • Perseverance
  • High SAT test scores

Here’s something else: poor impulse control is a better predictor of juvenile delinquency than IQ!

You don’t have to offer your kids twice the goodies to teach them impulse control.  The key is to teach them to be forward thinkers by the way you feed them.

Kids are naturally focused on the here and now, and while being in the moment may be a good Buddhist practice, it’s not the best technique for eating right.  Instead, being able to plan for the future – parties, playdates, and visits by grandparents – is the essential skill kids need to have.

Here’s one way to teach impulse control:

1) Set a daily or weekly junk limit. Consider both the size of the treats and the frequency with which they’re eaten.

2) Point out upcoming events when junk will be eaten so your child can make the best choice.  “We’re going to a party later where there will be cupcakes and candy.  You can have a donut now, but then you can’t have the treats later.  Which do you want?”

3) Let your child choose when she eats her junk.

Many parents have used this technique to end the junk food battle.

One woman I know had a struggle with her kids on Thursdays because that was donut day.  Every once in awhile her kids would ask for an additional treat that day, such as a cookie after school. If Mom said “No,” the kids complained until she gave in.  After Mom started using this technique, however, her kids choose between the donuts and the cookies and they happily lived with their choice.

With current concerns about childhood obesity, there is no better place to teach your children self-control than around food.

Just because young kids will probably choose the treat now over the treat later isn’t a reason not to try this technique.  In fact, it’s only through exposure to this kind of exercise that your child will learn to choose the payoff they really prefer (instead of just the one at hand) and develop the skills they’ll need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Once your kids learn impulse control, the rest of the benefits will follow suit.

And you can start downloading that application to Harvard.  (Those of you on the West Coast, think Stanford!)

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Source:  Zimbardo, P. and J. Boyd, 2008. The Time Paradox: the New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. New York, NY: Free Press. Pp. 215-217.