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February 2014

The marshmallow test; parents and children; Love


One of the wonderful benefits of being a grandfather is the opportunity to reflect on what sort of parent you were when raising your own children.   I have been observing my oldest daughter and her husband as they parent their daughter, Luna.  They share their experiences which dovetail with my observations.

When we were busy raising our three children, we were interested in just getting sleep and surviving. There was little time for objective observation, reflection and thoughtful hypotheses on what is happening with your kids and your parenting.   If you’ve never had children, you get to be like an observing grandparent.   Your friends with kids are too busy parenting to stand back and watch.

Here are some of my direct observations. Also, our adult children have shared a few of their observations, in between their grabbing sleep and some couple time , when little Luna is asleep:

  • Children really watch what you do and say

    – not even 18 months old, Luna would try to fold her arms mimicking what her mother just did.
  • Children tune into and conform to their parents’ expectations about how they should feel and react  
    – Luna was playing with the water fountain at the park. The water spurted out suddenly, startling her. At the same time it was fascinating and exciting. Encouraged to enjoy the new experience, she forced out several giggles that communicated: ‘This is fun, but I’m also a bit frightened and scared.’
  • When parents are clear on their beliefs, values and limits, children respond very quickly to know what is expected and normalConversely, if there is a drift away from those practices, children quickly learn to push the limits

    – Luna is not yet 2 years old. Until now she has been used accustomed to asking for water when she is thirsty. As soon as she saw me drinking apple juice instead of water and tried it, she began asking for sweet apple juice instead of water.

The ability to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by innate ability.

These observations on the power of parental influence are right in line with a fascinating 40-year-old study with very young children; the study tested their ability to delay gratification. A couple of years ago the study was updated – to see what might increase or decrease the ability to delay gratification in these 3 to 5 year olds. It was published in Cognition, an international journal of cognitive science research.

1. In the study of 3- to 5-year-olds, researchers randomly assigned 28 children to two groups: reliable (R) and unreliable (UR).

Here is how “reliable interactions” and “unreliable interactions” were set up in the experiment: Children were given an arts and crafts project to work on when they arrived.

  • In the “unreliable interaction” group, “the children were provided a cup of dingy, used crayons and told that if they could wait, the researcher (Palmeri) would return shortly with a big set of “better” art supplies for their project. After 2½ minutes, the researcher returned empty-handed.
  • Next the child was offered a little sticker to decorate their project and was told that if he or she could wait before using it, the researcher would return with a large selection of “better” stickers. After the same wait, the researcher again returned empty-handed.”
  • The children in the “reliable interaction” group got the opposite treatment. “The reliable group experienced the same setup, but the researcher (also Palmeri) always returned with the promised materials – a teeming assortment of new art supplies and a large assortment of fun stickers.”

2. Immediately after the reliability/unreliability part of the experiment, “the marshmallow task followed. The researcher explained that the child could have one marshmallow immediately, or wait for the researcher to return with two.

  • Almost on cue, the children in the unreliable group (UR) knew the researcher wouldn’t fulfill her promise and they ate their marshmallow quickly, as opposed to those in the reliable group (R) who knew they would be rewarded as they had been in the past by waiting.”
  • Researchers found that children who experienced “reliable interactions” with a researcher immediately before the marshmallow experiment waited on average four times longer (12 minutes) to eat the marshmallow than children who had an unreliable interaction (3 minutes).
Celeste Kidd, the primary researcher, was inspired by a little girl at a homeless shelter to do this study. If you want to find out how and more about the findings, here’s the link:

Some conclusions about this study

  • The ability to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by innate ability.
  • “I hope people will be more careful to assume that a lack of restraint is a personality defect,” Kidd said. “A lack of impulse control is not necessarily the reason kids make the choices they do.”
  • From the mother of one of the children in the experiment: “I think the reliability played a big part in her waiting as long as she did,” Rose said about her daughter. “She was having fun and knew she was being rewarded by the caregiver. Kids really do watch what adults do more than we think they do.” 


Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, Richard N. Aslin (2013): “Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability” Cognition 126 (2013) 109-114.


The next time you are around children and their parents or caretakers, observe their interactions. Notice what the children are watching and experiencing about how the world works.

 TIP 1
When working with a client, young or old, explore what the “reliable” and “unreliable” interactions were in their life experience. It may say a lot about how they act now and how you should act.

The observations of a grandfather and experiments like the marshmallow test remind us of the power of parenting – for good or ill. So many of our clients suffer from impulse control issues, mood regulation difficulties and tremendous longings for nurturance. At the same time they can equally experience fears of not being able to count on anyone being there for them. They feel demoralized and hopeless.

When parents and caretakers are themselves depressed, suffering from addiction and/or mental illness, psychotic, preoccupied with chronic pain etc., no wonder we witness the results of “unreliable” nurturing.

So what to do:

  • Ask your clients how their parents treated them. What was the quality, consistency and reliability of the parenting they received? See if it helps explain their current signs and symptoms. If so, how?
  • If they have children themselves, explore their parenting perspectives and skills to see if you can help break the cycle of intergenerational “unreliability.”
  • Examine your own interactions with your clients. Can you assist in their having a “corrective emotional experience” in your work with them? Note: this doesn’t mean trying “loving them into health,” flooding them with the nurturance they missed out on. In fact there are dynamics to pay attention to. Read more on this in the October 2009 edition of Tips and Topics
  • Perhaps you have children of your own, nieces or nephews, or friends’ children you know. These are opportunities to raise your own consciousness or that of your friends, relatives and other parents. Consistent parenting is powerful. It creates the conditions for safe, reliable nurturance. Children fortunate enough to be in such environments can manage feelings and function in adaptive and resilient ways.

Like the mother of one of the children in the marshmallow test said: “Kids really do watch what adults do more than we think they do.”


For Valentine’s Day this month, my wife, Marcia, gave me a little book: “True Love – A Practice for Awakening the Heart” written by famed Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The inside book cover says the author “shows the way to overcome our recurrent obstacles to love – by learning to be mindful, open, and present with ourselves and others.”

It does indeed show some ways to practice ways to love and be loved. What Thich Nhat Hanh offers are four mantras. A mantra is “a magic formula that once it is uttered, can entirely change a situation our mind, our body or a person. But this magic formula must be spoken in a state of concentration… which body and mind are absolutely in a state of unity.” Mindfully breathe first: notice your breathing in and breathing out for a few minutes. This prepares you to say the four mantras:

  • Dear one, I am really here for you.” – being there for the ones you love.
  • Dear one, I know that you are there and it makes me very happy.” – recognizing the presence of the person you love.
  • Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you.” – being there because “when we are suffering, we have a strong need for the presence of the person we love.”
  • Dear one, I am suffering, please help.” – This is used when you are suffering and you think your hurt has been caused by the very one you love. Instead of withdrawing in anger or pain, “you must overcome your pride; you must always go to him or her” and ask for his or her help.

I don’t know about “magic formulas.” Yet these are simple phrases – hard to do, yet when practiced, promote understanding, compassion, happiness, and joy.

Many years ago, Marcia introduced me to another important book.  Around another Valentine’s Day edition, I shared some of the main points of that book.  If you want to re-read more about the Love Language of you and your loved ones, read the February 2008 edition of Tips and Topics in the archives.

I think my wife is trying to tell me something with these Valentine’s Day books!

….Oh, and she did give me some chocolates as well. She knows I am a bit of a chocaholic.


1. Thich Nhat Hanh (2011): “True Love – A Practice for Awakening the Heart.” Shambhala, Boston & London.

2. Chapman, Gary (1992): “The Five Love Languages – How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate”. Northfield Publishing, Chicago.

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