What The Marshmallow Experiments Tell Us Preschoolers Need

From Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiments at Stanford University beginning in the 1960’s to a current study from the Graduate School of Education at UCSF, the conclusions have not changed: Impulse control, or the ability to plan ahead and defer gratification, enhances a child’s ability to fulfill long-term goals. Follow-up studies by Mischel and others have shown that children who are able to resist temptation have significantly better social and emotional outcomes throughout adolescence and mid-life.

How can you translate the findings of these academic studies into your daily life as a parent? The ideas below can help promote self-discipline and self-control in your child.

  • If…Then: Our decisions always have consequences. Using “if…then” sentences on a regular basis (e.g. “If you choose not to get dressed now, then you will be late for school” or “If you are dressed and ready to leave, then you will have ten minutes to use the computer.”) allow your child to begin to understand and internalize the concept. If your child has a hard time following through, try to stay calm and say, “It’s okay, we will try again.”
  • Role Modeling: Children are always watching and learning from your behavior. Verbally acknowledge your own challenges in controlling your impulses and explain how you attempt to overcome those challenges. Help your child understand perfection is not the goal, but rather a continuous striving to improve. Mistakes, yours and your child’s, are opportunities for conversation about what would have happened if we had made a different choice. Try to keep conversations short, to the point and ask the question “What did you (we) learn from what happened that will help us next time?”
  • Managing Temptation: Help your child develop strategies to make waiting easier, and even interesting or fun. Tell him, “Yes, it is hard to wait, but while you wait, try to think of as many things that are red as you can,” or “Thank you for waiting. If you wait five minutes, then I can give you my full attention. What will the clock look like in five minutes?” Ideas for distraction can be singing, jumping, counting, telling a story, drawing, reading or eating a box of raisins or fish crackers one at a time. Giving your child a small task to complete is another option when waiting is necessary.
  • Maintain Trust: One of the findings in the studies mentioned above was that children were better able to maintain control in the presence of an adult they trusted. Give honest answers to questions such as, “How long will I have to wait?” and “When will you be back?” Briefly explain why it is necessary to wait. In preschool, children often ask who is picking them up and at what time; give honest answers to these questions as well. When plans have to change, briefly explain why this is necessary.
  • Dealing with Obstacles and Frustration: Before encountering situations where your child might be frustrated, suggest simple ways to manage that frustration. You will be modeling planning ahead and dealing with obstacles. Tell her “I understand this is something new; how can I help you get started on the first step?” or “Try it first, and then I’ll help you if you need it.” Share some simple methods you use when facing an obstacle or are feeling frustrated. Talk about experiences where it was hard for you to wait for your turn. Providing puzzles, gear games, blocks or other manipulatives that offer a new challenge encourage your child to attempt new tasks. Acknowledge attempts, and offer help or verbal encouragement to keep on trying. The words “I can see (or hear) you are really frustrated” help recognize a range of emotions and open up a conversation. Acknowledge obstacles met and over-come by saying “It seems like that was a lot of hard work. How did it feel to do that?
  • Planning and Reaching Goals: Help your child practice setting simple goals and planning how to reach them. Cooking/baking, gardening, and art projects with multiple steps are fun ways to present goals to be reached and require patience to wait for the outcome. Use a calendar with simple words and pictures to plan ahead, track the number of days until a certain date, or for marking achievement toward a specific goal.
  • Harnessing Imagination and Creativity: Helping your child imagine different outcomes to situations or solutions to problems are good ways to practice planning ahead and making decisions. Give him time to act out different scenarios. Puppets, stuffed animals, and dolls offer numerous creative options, as do wordless pictures books or writing and illustrating his own story ideas. After finishing a movie or book together, ask, “What do you think would have happened if…”

Further reading: 



Judy Medoff, M.A., recently retired after 25 years of serving as the founding director of The Price Family Preschool in San Diego, CA. During this time, she taught weekly parent participation classes and developed parenting workshops on many topics. She currently works as an independent consultant for families and schools. Judy lives with her husband in San Diego and visits her two grown children in the Bay Area quite often. She would love to hear your stories and questions: medoffjudy@gmail.com.

Leave a Comment