(Being refined, but all the information is here)

The predictor
What needs to be taught
The test itself
The source of "doing better" in life
The results from impulse control
The rescue
The way out


Is your child a real marshmallow when it comes to self control?

This is a very strong predictor of the probability that a four year old child will go far in school and life or will find school to be frustrating and life to be hard.


What shapes this behavioral trait is what is taught at home before age 4 (though we can mount a rigorous program to overcome it later). 

The child will do well on the test, if the child is taught:

  1.   To take turns
  2.   Focused connection (direct eye to eye contact, faced squarely by the adult)
  3    Action leads to something good or bad in a predictable way

If the child is raised in an atmosphere where the consequences of behavior are predictable and reliable, then the child naturally will adapt by developing strategies that work to get the desired consequences.  (This is true most of the time, though sometimes some of the beliefs about what will work are not true because the child made an incorrect assumption or conclusion.)

If the child does well on this, they will learn tricks to avoid their impulses (avoid being run by them).  The reason to avoid the impulse is to achieve the natural goal of getting good consequences and/or avoiding bad consequences.  (Duh!)


The test is The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel.  When children were offered one marshmallow now (left in front of them) or two later if they didn't eat the first one, the four year olds who managed to last 7+ minutes turned out to predictably finish college and to do better throughout life.


Doing better in life came from

1.  Their capacity to plan and think ahead,
2.  Their ability to “cope well with problems”, and
3.  Their ability to get along with their peers.

Their capacity to plan and think ahead is a natural development from working to create what is necessary to get the clear consequences.  Once the consequences were clear, then the child used the ability to reason (a little) and the functionality of the primitive brain to "predict" consequences and to create strategies that would be successful.  The elements above are the very definition of planning! 

Note that we encourage each adult (and child) to learn how to plan (in order to get the greatest benefit in life, so that one can use the adult ability to choose between short term and long term benefits) and how to do decision making, which is the end of the necessary problem solving process (see Problem Solving, Decision Making, Creating Change).   We address each one of those in the Life Management section (go to that section or use the search engine).

Getting along with peers is a natural result of thinking ahead and planning for desired consequences.   Also, children learn to "read" other people better if they must cope on their own, so these children will have more of the essential ingredient to run life well: emotional intelligence.


The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Note that this "self-control" or "impulse control" (delaying short term gratification) is not some "moral" thing or judgment about a person's character but is solely a result of going through a process that developed what was necessary to have those as ways of operating and thinking. 

Those who "struggle" with these simply are experiencing the lack of a clear belief system and structure.  Struggle can only result from conflicting elements.  Therefore, the solution to struggle is to go through the process of creating clarity through knowledge such that the person chooses what will most easily work for them.  There is no "mysterious" force that one has to gin up in order to "overcome" something.  It is just a process of learning and seeing and choosing what works and remaining clear that one will get more benefit out of that than the alternative.

It is my opinion that parents need to learn the way of thinking and believing that works best for life, so that the parents can then teach it to the children.  Interestingly enough, there is less lecturing involved and more of providing clear, consistently implemented consequences to the child.


The source of underachievement

Note that the very source of "underachievement" is what people often refer to being a part of "co-dependence". 

This means that the parent is so afraid of the child feeling pain or not being pleased or not feeling loved that the parent will, often unknowingly, "rescue" the child. 

The latter is often not mentioned as a factor, but it is true that rescues often happen because the parent believes that this is a way of  "providing love to my child."  This is a natural "unknowing", until taught (obviously), where "being nice" and "rescuing" is thought to be a way to show love - but this is not correct at all!  The parents have "confused" two concepts together and they simply need to untangle them and get clarity through learning (and probably instruction).

Control as a "rescue" equivalent

Another part that is confused here lies in the dysfunctional effort by the parent to "control" the child by telling the child what to do but seldom allowing the child to learn what to do and to get practice at thinking ahead.  The child, instead of being proactive, learns to just try to please the parent by following the "instructions" and by trying to "read" the parent's displeasure, which is extremely feared by the child.  The child not only has the parent thinking for the child and giving instructions or comparisons to guide the child, but is taught to live life to please the parent.  The child will then often become hyper-reactive, even paranoid, about criticism, even from a non-parent, who is "like" a parent, often only in being high enough in power that a powerless child is in fear of the displeasure of this person - even if the person is a relative stranger!!!!! 

The consequences of "rescue"

Any form of "rescue" enables the child to get the desired consequences without having to learn how to do so through devising strategies and doing the necessary thinking and planning ahead

The child therefore does not develop this vital capacity - and, therefore, goes through life

1.  Not knowing that it is he/she that is responsible for creating the desired results in life (a key "lifelearning"),

2.  Not knowing what it takes to create those results (and therefore being less effective in life), and

3. Waiting to be rescued (unreliably so if dependent on people and circumstances not under one's control). 

He/she does not, therefore, have confidence that he/she can produce the desired results in life, resulting normally in

1.  Low self esteem,
2.  Anxiety that is needlessly high 
3.  A feeling of powerlessness or helplessness,
4.  Low confidence,
5.  Low abilities in life, etc. and etc. 

Each of these is a huge source of stress and unhappiness in the child.

Although well meaning, most parents are doing an extreme disservice to their children's future

Often continued into the child's adulthood

Interestingly enough, it is not uncommon for parents to continue this "rescuing" well into the adult lives of their children.  Understandably, it is hard to see how one can be loving yet let the child do the necesssary suffering to develop the skills that will in turn cause the child to have less suffering!!!!!

"Not knowing" about "definite" consequences

Also, a contributing factor, which might be the whole cause, could be that the parent does not know that he/she must provide clear consequences and almost never back down.

The classic simple example is where one says something like:

"If you don't do this, then you won't get a cookie."
Then the child doesn't do it.
Then when the cookie is withheld, the child cries (a behavior the child has learned works to get "rescued" from the pain of the consequences).
The parent gives in and gives the child a cookie anyway.

Another version of this might be, "oh, I love my child, so I better give him/her a cookie so that he/she knows that. 

An interesting "turn about"

Although not with total awareness, the child has done the equivalent of providing clear consequences to the parent, so that the parent will do what the child wants. 

Of course, this manipulation doesn't work so well out there in the real world, although the child is likely to keep trying.  And sometimes that manipulation works in the real world, which gives it psychological reinforcement, as the child fails to evaluate the total cost of when it doesn't work, which is more often.


No matter what stage the child is at in life, stop the rescuing or excess control.  Leave the child with clear consequences and no rewards without doing what is needed.

If the child is still young, then the effectiveness is likely to be greater.

If the "child" is older, then the challenge is to get the child to learn the concepts that  are necessary to be able to be responsible for one's life, to be confident of being able to produce desired results, to repair the low self regard, to feel powerful instead of powerless, and how to create desired results (including using planning and time management).  This is a challenge in that the child typically will not want to put forth the effort to do the necessary learning or to learn enough to be able to evaluate whether the learning is worth doing! 

Parent "jawboning" (talking about it, encouraging) can be influential, but it must be consistent and the parents must be partners in the process (but not critical at all). 

The adult-child will often not want to do the learning needed or will be incapable of exerting the control to do the learning. 

This is where coaching and/or counseling can make a huge difference - often the difference between no success and success.  If one can afford it, both would be beneficial and would accelerate the process. 

Resistance by a person who has been getting his/her way can be strong, as it is the more effortful path to do the learning than not do it (in the short term anyway!).  All sorts of excuses and attempts to get out of it will most likely occur.  They'll find something wrong with the person or "fire" the person because of the person not meeting an expectation - or they'll get the parent to do the firing.

The use of a life coach who is suitable to this type of work is an extremely beneficial activity.  There is regular contact and encouragement and guidance that help refocus on being effective in life and not allowing false beliefs to govern.  The person learns to "do" and becomes more effective.  The person's knowledge is expanded through direct learning and through learning through experience, both of which have great value.

This whole website addresses these issues and how to be more effective in life.

In either case (the child is young or older), the parents must learn enough to be able to implement what is necessary.  Parents of older (adult) children often don't want to go to "parenting" classes because that is more about little kids, though some of the classes would be useful.  They need to also do the reading and to talk with a coach or consultant or counselor (or all of them) to get the overview and guidance.  It takes some commitment, but the potential worth of it is priceless

Notes for integration:

he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.

a more patient person,” Craig says. “Looking back, there are definitely moments when it would have helped me make better career choices and stuff.”

The scientists are hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper. They’re also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they search for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.

If Mischel and his team succeed, they will have outlined the neural circuitry of self-control. For decades, psychologists have focussed on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

If you want to know why some kids can wait and others can’t, then you’ve got to think like they think

but what if personality can’t be separated from context?

every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

For instance, when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

40 year olds:
they decided on a series of tasks that measure the ability of subjects to control the contents of working memory—the relatively limited amount of information we’re able to consciously consider at any given moment. According to Jonides, this is how self-control “cashes out” in the real world: as an ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.

A graph of the data shows that as the delay time of the four-year-olds decreases, the number of mistakes made by the adults sharply rises.

These tasks have been studied so many times that we pretty much know where to look and what we’re going to find,” Jonides says. He rattles off a short list of relevant brain regions, which his lab has already identified as being responsible for working-memory exercises. For the most part, the regions are in the frontal cortex—the overhang of brain behind the eyes—and include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the right and left inferior frontal gyri. While these cortical folds have long been associated with self-control, they’re also essential for working memory and directed attention. According to the scientists, that’s not an accident. “These are powerful instincts telling us to reach for the marshmallow or press the space bar,” Jonides says. “The only way to defeat them is to avoid them, and that means paying attention to something else. We call that will power, but it’s got nothing to do with the will.”

“I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.”

She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

Last year, Duckworth and Mischel were approached by David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP, an organization of sixty-six public charter schools across the country. KIPP schools are known for their long workday—students are in class from 7:25 A.M. to 5 P.M.—and for dramatic improvement of inner-city students’ test scores. (More than eighty per cent of eighth graders at the KIPP academy in the South Bronx scored at or above grade level in reading and math, which was nearly twice the New York City average.) “The core feature of the KIPP approach is that character matters for success,” Levin says. “Educators like to talk about character skills when kids are in kindergarten—we send young kids home with a report card about ‘working well with others’ or ‘not talking out of turn.’ But then, just when these skills start to matter, we stop trying to improve them. We just throw up our hands and complain.”

Self-control is one of the fundamental “character strengths” emphasized by KIPP—the KIPP academy in Philadelphia, for instance, gives its students a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow

Because the study will focus on students between the ages of four and eight, the classroom lessons will rely heavily on peer modelling, such as showing kindergartners a video of a child successfully distracting herself during the marshmallow task. The scientists have some encouraging preliminary results—after just a few sessions, students show significant improvements in the ability to deal with hot emotional states—but they are cautious about predicting the outcome of the long-term study

might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can’t control, such as the home environment.

From wikipedia on delayed gratification:
Deferred gratification or delayed gratification is the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants. This attribute is known by many names, including impulse control, will power, and self control. In formal terms of accounting, an individual should calculate net present value of future rewards and defer near-term rewards of lesser value.
those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored significantly higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test years later.[2]
capacity to achieve your goals -- in your work and in your life.
tended to be rate high on the skills that make for
success -- in school, at work, in life. They had many of the "habits of successful people" -- confidence, persistence, capacity to cope with frustration.
They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into listening to a favorite TV programs.
here's a "marshmallow" that almost all of us reach for occasionally, because it provides fast, fast, fast relief from anxiety. (At this point I reveal that the giant marshmallow on the podium is actually... a bed sheet-covered TV set.)

Self-Restraint, Focus, Prioritizing, the Long-Range View. The marshmallow test is a telling way to catch people's attention for a presentation on these strategies, which are so essential to success.

"Your marshmallow has become part of our 'corporate culture,'" reports the meeting manager of a major association in the pharmaceutical industry.
"It reminds us to put first things first, to subordinate the immediately gratifying, to the longer range goal. I use it at least once a week to remind someone on my staff not to get distracted by the seemingly urgent but unimportant, and neglect what will really make a difference in our profitability."

The other technique is a bit more self-help-styled. It involves re-focusing the mind on the long-term implications of the very short-term indulgence that's just out of reach, whether that's a pack of cigarettes, a blended mocha swirl, or surfing on over to a favorite web time waster.