Got Grit? Got Marshmallows? Increasing Self–Control and Resilience in the Lives of Our Children: Part 1
Imagine twenty-five second graders sitting at their desks with a marshmallow in front of them, but NO ONE eats it. What is going on? Second graders at Harrison Avenue are working on self-control. But, how did they do it? The second graders had the benefit of learning some self-control strategies from an old friend, cookie monster.
Dr. Walter Mischel in his new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control discusses his famous marshmallow test. In his original test, conducted nearly 50 years ago, preschoolers were given a choice, one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. The experimenter then left the preschooler alone in a room for 15 minutes to decide what to do. Dr. Mischel discovered that preschoolers who could wait, went on to have better outcomes later in life (e.g., higher SAT scores, more advanced degrees, better able to cope with stress).
But, what helped some kids wait while others could not? By activating cool, goal oriented thoughts such as not looking at the marshmallow, putting the marshmallow in a picture frame, imagining the marshmallow was something non-desirable, or by focusing on the end goal (two marshmallows instead of one), preschoolers were more successful in waiting. In contrast, activating hot, demanding immediate gratification thoughts such as staring at the marshmallow, smelling the marshmallow, or thinking how yummy it would be to eat it, made it more likely that the kids could not wait. Dr. Mischel discovered that although for some kids it is genetically easier to wait than for others, you can teach these strategies.
In a terrific partnership with Sesame Street, he did just that: teach these skills. In the Sesame Street videos, the same ones that were shown to the second graders at Harrison Avenue, cookie monster is seen cooling his thoughts, so he could wait. What we see in these videos is cookie monster showing grit, changing his mindset, and ultimately showing self-control.
What does it mean to show grit? Dr. Angela Duckworth is one of the leading experts on grit. She explains in a TED Talk that has been seen by over five million people that “grit is passion and perseverance, sticking with your future, day in and day out”. She discusses that success is associated with a growth mindset where failure is not seen as a permanent condition. Successful people believe that their skill set is not “fixed”, but rather that it can change with effort.
In my private practice, I often see kids who lack “grit”. When faced with a challenge, they think that they have a limited amount of skills and that when challenged the answer is quitting (they just want to eat the marshmallow). However, in my work with these youngsters, I encourage them to see a challenge as an opportunity to grow and to treat their lives not like a sprint, but rather as a marathon.
I often give kids the example of what I hear from one of my favorite instructors at the gym. The instructor who teaches the “Extreme Limits Class” does NOT say, “Oh you are tired, just drop the weights”. Oh no! Instead she says, “You are tired, that’s a good sign. It means your muscles are changing, keep going, you can do it!” The instructor is encouraging cool thoughts, grit, and a different mindset!
In Part 2 of this blog (coming out next month), I will be discussing strategies that parents and teachers can use to increase grit and mindset change which ultimately will lead to self-control and more resilience. You will have to have some self-control and wait until January to find out.
In the meantime, how do you keep from not eating the marshmallow? As many second graders told me, “I changed it into a smelly fish” or “I remembered that you would give me two, if I waited”, and lastly, “I remembered what was important”. Hoping the wisdom shared from our students helps you, with whatever your “marshmallow” is.
If you like these ideas I encourage you to read Dr. Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control. In addition, check out Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit and two videos on youtube produced by Sesame Street (“Me Want It” and “Sesame Street: The Waiting Game with Guy Smiley”). Please check out my website at drbaruchfeldman.com for additional blogs, articles, and presentations.