The Atlantic has an article with Walter Mischel, the marshmallow test guy, who has out a new book about it. In the interview, he comes up with this:
Urist: In the book, you advise parents if their child doesn’t pass the Marshmallow Test, ask them why they didn’t wait. What should I be trying to elicit from my son about why he grabbed the first little cupcake? When I asked, he just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
Mischel: It sounds like your son is very comfortable with cupcakes and not having any cupcake panics and I wish him a hearty appetite. Whether the information is relevant in a school setting depends on how the child is doing in the classroom. If he or she is doing well, who cares? But if the child is distracted or has problems regulating his own negative emotions, is constantly getting into trouble with others, and spoiling things for classmates, what you can take from my work and my book, is to use all the strategies I discuss—namely making “if-then” plans and practicing them. Having a whole set of procedures in place can help a child regulate what he is feeling or doing more carefully.
All I can say about that, is wow. If-then plans. And practice them. Ha! If you have a child who is impulsive, and not internally disciplined, and distracted, then you already know the agony that will be involved in both developing appropriate, reasonable, workable if-then plans, and then in practicing them. A relevant quote, that I have found to be particularly applicable to the parenting of children who require discipline from the outside in (and no, I do not mean beatings!!):
Urist: I have to ask you about President Clinton and Tiger Woods, both mentioned in the book. I’ve heard of “decision fatigue”—are their respective media scandals both examples of adults who suffered from “willpower fatigue?” Men who could exercise enormous self-discipline on the golf course or in the Oval office but less so personally?
Mischel: No question. People experience willpower fatigue and plain old fatigue and exhaustion. What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have. Bill Clinton simply may have a different sense of entitlement: I worked hard all day, now I’m entitled to X, Y, or Z. Confusion about these kinds of behaviors [tremendous willpower in one situation, but not another] is erased when you realize self-control involves cognitive skills. You can have the skills and not use them. If your kid waits for the marshmallow, [then you know] she is able to do it. But if she doesn’t, you don’t know why. She may have decided she doesn’t want to.
So as a parent, the challenge is to figure out how much energy you have, and to what you will allocate it. Your job? Personal care for yourself and/or kids (i.e., do they look like hobos)? Cleaning/maintaining your home? Homework? Preparing nutritious, organic, home made meals? Extra curriculars, like sports or music? Religious practice? Regular old discipline? And then lets add on If-then plans, and practicing them. Oh, and don’t forget the energy needed to maintain yourself – body, mind, and spirit. And then, of course, your primary responsibility to your spouse.
From my own experience, so far I am seeing in my older teenagers (who would probably not pass the marshmallow test today) that they are hardwired to act immediately. Teaching them about delayed gratification has been a never ending process, and I’m not sure that anything I have done has helped or hindered that process. It may just be a natural part of their maturing.