You can learn a lot from a marshmallow

I’m glad when I was a kid no one ever put a marshmallow in front of me and recorded for posterity whether I took it or held out for a larger reward in the future. According to a growing body of research, the waiters have an exponentially higher chance of success in life. Personally, patience has never been my strong suit, though I make up for it stubbornness, or, er, perseverance.

The reasons holding out for a reward leads to success in the future is covered in the much-discussed book How Children Succeed, by journalist Paul Tough. In short, they succeed through character, or broken down into its component parts, self-control, optimism, trustworthiness, curiosity and grit.

Why this is revolutionary is that for years the pervasive idea was that IQ determined whether children would succeed. And IQ was not believed to be especially malleable.

The impact of the marshmallow test, a longitudinal study launched in the 1970s, is pervasive in schools today. At my son’s elementary school, Needham, lessons are all founded in the International Baccalaureate approach to pedagogy, which focuses on developing inquiring and curious thinkers. This doesn’t mean no more ABC and 123, but it adds the context of society’s social contract that makes these skills valuable.

An episode of NPR’s Planet Money (wander in my kitchen on any given evening and you’ll hear public radio, so it is the inevitable touchstone of all my mental musings) discusses the application of this theory through programs that provide high quality preschool to underprivileged kids.

Here’s the episode:

The encouraging result is that a good preschool can make an astounding difference in the lives of these children. Astounding as in the difference between graduating from college or dropping out of high school and obtaining a well-paying job or being unemployed.

What they are getting through preschool is so-called “executive function” – a psychology buzzword that refers to kids’ ability to control their behavior, work with others, pay attention and solve problems.

The depressing part of such findings, as least for me, is that those very basic skills are not being taught to the children by their parents. Why?

I don’t believe it’s moral failings – parents are hard wired to want the best for their kids. But something about society has set insurmountable barriers in their way. Many work long hours in low paying jobs and lack a model of good parenting to draw from. And families have become increasingly migratory, disassembling the network of relatives that used to pick up the slack. Lastly, parenting is just plain hard, even for the best equipped.

My hope is that policy makers won’t give up on these parents, leaving it to institutions to do their jobs for them.

And for all parents, there is more good news in the research: kids succeed through overcoming adversity. So relax and don’t helicopter. Travails will teach them more than all the preemptive protectiveness we can muster.

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