Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Marshmallow Parenting FAIL

Do you know the marshmallow test? In the 60s, in a study of delayed gratification, a famous researcher put a preschooler in a room, with a marshmallow on the table in front of them. The researcher says, I'm going to leave the room for a bit, and if you wait, when I get back, you can have 2 marshmallows instead of just one now. And the researcher leaves, and the hidden camera records all sorts of craziness - some kids can wait, but it's tortuous for them, other kids pop that marshmallow right in their mouth, still others try every method possible to distract themselves away from the marshmallow, other kids lick, or pet, or otherwise obsess over the marshmallow. Someone redid the study and the video is all over the web.

Two Saturdays ago (the date becomes important later), my friend Helen was talking about the marshmallow test, and said the original researcher had followed up with the kids in the original study, and found those who could wait were universally successful in life, while those who showed no ability to delay gratification were, well, not quite as successful. Fascinating - the New Yorker did a story last year that comprehensively covered the research into self-control, delayed gratification, and how that shapes your personality and choices in other areas. Kids who didn't eat the marshmallow had a 200 point advantage on the SAT, on average, over kids who showed no self control. If you have the self control to not eat the marshmallow, you have the self control to study instead of watch TV, to avoid credit card debt, to save for retirement insted of spend frivolously now. A simple, elegant experiment (and I have always been a sucker for elegant experiments) that can tell you much about a personality. Perhaps most fascinating, it's the kids who distract themselves that do the best, and those are skills that can be taught - kids can learn self control and how to delay gratification on a small scale, and there is research ongoing on how simple skills can be reinforced to lead to greater success later in life.

So, that was two Saturdays ago. The next day, Sunday, we went to Ikea to pick up a couple of things, including a bookcase for Elizabeth's room. We don't go all that often - maybe two or three times a year. Somehow, I think related to the relative infrequency of the trip, the length of time we spend there, and the inexpensive toys, we always get Elizabeth (and now Andrew) a small little stuffed animal when we go. The stuffed animals are halfway through the store, so it buys us some time and interest (those Ikea people are pretty smart, putting the kids stuff at the halfway point). I did a return, and met Rich and the kids in the children's section, where Rich and Elizabeth were engaged in a debate about toys. Andrew was happily clutching a $2.99 cat, but Elizabeth wanted a stuffed dog, and the dogs were all 9.99 or more, so Rich was showing her the options under $5, and she wasn't pleased, but was settling, none too happily, for a small stuffed mouse.

In a flash of what I thought was brilliance at the time, I said, OK, I've got a deal for you - you can have the mouse now, OR, the next time we come to Ikea, you can have a dog. And this simple idea, which I thought was brilliant, turned out to be torture for Elizabeth. She was at first puzzled, so we explained it again and again, as we moved through the store, her still clutching the mouse. She was so flumoxed by this possibility she had to sit in the cart to think hard and deeply about it. But it was so upsetting I caught her whispering, 'you're not my best mommy' to herself as she agonized over the choice. Seriously, I am not exaggerating when I say presenting her with this choice is quite possibly one of the most stressful things I have ever imposed on her. She was withdrawn and troubled. She couldn't or wouldn't look up at us as she thought about it. She would liven up as she thought of possible ways out of the deal: 'I know! We can get both!' but we stayed firm in the choice she had to make, and she would quickly revert to being utterly stressed out.

We made it to the checkout with the situation unresolved, her deeply upset, clutching the mouse, us saying what a good deal it was, how it was entirely her choice, but didn't she want a dog the next time we came. We were putting items on the checkout belt when she said, 'after this day? after this day we'll come get a dog?' and we said yes, we'd come back and get a stuffed dog. So she gave up the mouse, we praised her lavishly for making such a smart choice, told her how proud we were of her, and off we went home, her still not entirely pleased.

Cut to the next morning. You know what's coming, right? 'After this day', to her, means tomorrow. She gets up Monday morning and says, when are we going to Ikea to get my dog? We say she has to go to school, and she says we're going to Ikea after school? No, no we're not. But when can I get my dog? And somehow soon is not quite the right answer.

By Saturday, after she wakes up she says am I going to school today? And when we say no, it's Saturday, she says yay! we can go to Ikea and get my dog!

It's over two weeks later, and while it's not quite twice a day or every day, nearly every day she asks when we are going to Ikea. I hadn't read the full New Yorker piece until today. Initially I thought this had been a flash of brilliance on my part. Her torture - and prolonged torture of saying no to Ikea day after day after day - made me think it had been a terrible idea, a colossal parenting fail. After reading the whole piece and thinking about the importance of learning self control, I'm back to thinking it was a good thing, but we really need to get back to Ikea. Like this coming weekend.


Thrift Store Mama said...

Wanna meet up at Ikea friday night ?

Elaine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.