Most of us have heard the famous marshmallow test where a child was brought into a private room, was told to sit in a chair and had to face a marshmallow placed on a table in front of them. The researcher then told the child clearly that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow. After 15 minutes, he would return. In the footage recorded, there were children who ate it immediately. There were some who gave in to temptation after a while and there were those who stuck it out to the end.

How did some of these children restrain themselves? They distracted themselves by focusing on something else such as singing, observing, playing by themselves or thinking of something else which was a lot harder than just grabbing the marshmallow to swallow.

When they tracked these children years later, they discovered that children who were able to restrain themselves led a far better quality of life than those who did not. They were receiving better grades, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress and better social skills.

This trait is called “delayed gratification“.


Related: How to Instil Delayed Gratification in Your Child 


Were children born with this trait? Or can we, as parents, develop it?

Most parents recognise that if their child has this trait, they will be successful in the future. So, we try to incalcate this value into their child. Yet do you know that we are easily the ones who can sabotage it all?

Unreliable Experiences vs Reliable Experiences 

This time, researchers repeated the experiment but with a twist. The children were first split into two groups before they were offered a marshmallow.

The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. For example, the researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Then the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection of stickers, but never did.

Meanwhile, the second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised better crayons and got them. They were told about the better stickers and then they received them.

The children in the unreliable group soon caught on that they had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one.

Meanwhile, the children in the second group were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things:

1) waiting for gratification is worth it

2) I have the capability to wait

As a result, the second group waited an average of four times longer than the first group.

In short, the children can be trained to  delay gratification and display self-control via experiences and environment that surrounds them almost immediately. Just a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences were enough to push the actions of each child in one direction or another.

What does this Mean?

In short, it means that if you want your child to succeed at something, your child needs to see the reward at the end of the task. Now, there is no real definition of a reward. Reward means differently to everyone. Extrinsic rewards may refer to promised holidays, gifts or even intangible rewards of a parent’s appearance while intrinsic rewards may simply refer to personal satisfaction.  It helps the child to find the ability to be disciplined and take action to focus which is harder first.

What does This Mean to Parents?

1st Type of Parents – The One Who Lies 

Do you ever find yourself lying to your child? For example, you often use extrinsic rewards such as a promise of a better toy or a sticker if they perform a certain deed but never got round to fulfilling it because it did not matter much to you? There are some parents who believe that the child ‘will forget about it’ anyway and thus did not get round to do so. Or maybe you have promised your child that you will always be there for your child’s event but somehow, you are unable to make it at the last minute due to ‘work’ or ‘other commitments’. If this occurs too frequently, you have actually make it known to your child indirectly that your work is more important than them. Your child has requested for an intangible reward which is your presence but if they are often stood up, they may stop trying to put in effort to complete their task or do up to the best of their ability since “my parent is never going to appear” anyway. Thus, they will not be able to develop their ‘delayed gratification’ as they do not have any reliable experiences to push them in the right direction.

2nd Type of Parents – The One Who Always Saves

‘Helicopter’ parents often does more harm than good while, ironically, in the quest of ensuring their child growing in the best environment they perceive possible. This includes rush in to protect your child from every supposedly calamity and solve every issue they face immediately. As such, your child is not able to wait and expect immediate solutions to everything. Thus, they do not develop the skills to cope with waiting, learning from experience  and the personal satisfaction of achieving something.  They will fall back on their ‘superhero’ parent who will rescue them from every life’s trouble. This can also be extended to ‘thinking skills’ as well.


RELATED: How to Think


If you find that your child’s teacher often tells you that your child refuses to think, it can be possible that your child has not developed the patience to think! More often than not, we jump quickly to provide information to our children but not more than that. Many children have not encountered questions that allow them to think further of the information which they just receive and thus, they always receive answers instantaneously. In fact, most of them find themselves struggling when they face questions that requires them to manipulate and synthesise information in higher-order thinking skills for exams. As they do not develop the patience to think, they will naturally become frustrated for they have never experience a reliable reward of personal satisfaction of answering a question that requires higher order thinking.

So, are you sabotaging your child’s delayed gratification without realising?