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May 29, 2009

Re-creation of Bing Nursery School Experiment (Footnote added)

(The "Don't Eat That Marshmallow Yet!" Experiment)

I've always been fascinated by experiments like this so when my husband forwarded me this article this morning, I devoured every paragraph.  Then I spent the rest of the morning thinking about how my children might have responded.

I really recommend that every parent read that article but for those who won't read it, here's my much less interesting and pathetically abbreviated Cliff-Notes version of it:

Back in the late 1960's a bunch of 4 year olds from Bing Nursery School were invited into a room at Stanford University and presented with a plate of treats.  They were told that they could have one treat right now OR if they waited some unspecified amount of time, they could have two treats.  The test revealed that the children who postponed or delayed gratification had personality traits that helped them do better in school and, generally, in life.  Some thirty years later, they tracked down the participants and confirmed almost of all of their earlier findings.

Obviously, I wondered how my kids would do. 

Bing Marshmallow Experiment-000001Maddy isn't really motivated at all by food (so two treats might never tempt her) but she does love an oh-so-fluffy-sticky- puffy marshmallow.  A treat even sweeter since she only gets them once per year - when I bake sweet potatoes.  

She has pretty good self control so she might see this game as an easy victory.  Really, it could go either way. 

Gwen is a totally different story.  She dislikes almost everything but the few things she likes, she REALLY likes.  So much that she'd eat those things nonstop if we let her.   Marshmallows are on her impossibly long list of 'disliked' foods so I did this experiment with one of her favorites:  Red Licorice. 

I told her she could have one piece right now or two pieces "later"  (without explaining how long that might be). Where her favorite foods are involved, she has less self control than her sister.  I really thought she'd be unable to resist the immediate gratification of scarfing down one piece of candy right now.  But the enticement of the 2nd piece of candy was enough to tempt her to stay the course and wait for the bigger prize. 

To make the game more difficult, I insisted that they sit at the table with the treats while they waited (otherwise they'd just run off and play).   I don't even put them in time-out for more than 5 minutes so I felt a bit guilty about forcing them to sit there in front of those treats for 15 minutes but that was how long most of the kids in this experiment waited -- so we did that too.  To my amazement, they didn't really seem to mind!   

Interestingly, both of the kids started singing almost immediately.  The article discusses this as a method of distracting themselves from the "hot stimulus" and such behavior was considered critical to successfully navigating such situations.  I was so proud of them!   Then I was less proud when they started smacking one another.  Hey, that's a distraction too, right?  Hee hee... whatever works!

The experiment took fifteen minutes but here's a little condensed video of what the kids were up to during that time.  It's only 5 minutes long and (I think) it's pretty cute! 

I have to admit that I couldn't have predicted how my kids would respond to this test.  I'm glad they showed some self restraint because I really don't think that's their usual MO (at age four). 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.    How much of this is a genetic personality trait and how much do you think we can influence as adoptive parents?   Will you try something like this with your kids?  (Please let me know if you do!)

FOOTNOTE:  I'm freely admitting that this isn't a scientific re-creation.  I didn't invite strangers with clip-boards and white lab coats into my house and my camera was obviously not hidden.  I tried hard not to "lead" the kids to the outcome I wanted.  Once I saw that they were going to wait for both treats (something that surprised me), I tried to make sure that they understood that it would be okay to just eat one treat and be finished with the game.  I'm satisfied that they didn't hold out for the 2nd treat to show obedience (laughing as I type this....) or to please me.  Since I always attempt to teach them "moderation", eating just one treat would have been the more natural choice if they were looking to please me.  Are my results "valid"?  Who freakin' cares!  It's not like I'm submitting my findings to a scientific journal.  This was something I did to satisfy my own curiosity and entertain my kids.  Mission accomplished on both counts! :)  

DISCLAIMER:  Please dont' look too closely at the area around them because it's our office/playroom and it's a virtual battleground most of the time.  Someday, we'll clean it but it seems futile for now. 


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