and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Repeating myself from the last daily beemail, here’s some philosophical musing, sparked by some of us logging official commitments for things we say to our kids like, to make up a stereotypical example, “we’ll go to Disneyland next summer”.

My conjecture is that it’s especially important to put yourself firmly on the hook when promising things to children. I base this on one interpretation of the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which is that learning to trust adults is a key predictor for success in life.

Recall the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment: kids who resisted gobbling the marshmallow in order to earn 2 marshmallows went on to be awesomer adults. The original explanation is that kids with the ability to delay gratification (or who come up with beemindery tricks to distract themselves from the tempting marshmallow) will be served well by that skill the rest of their lives.

But another explanation – thanks to @lanthala for the citation – is that those seemingly impulsive kids are just the kids who don’t trust the adults who promise the 2nd marshmallow. They’re like “yeah, I’ve heard that before” and gobble while the gobbling’s good. In other words, they’re not failing to delay gratification, they’re responding to the situation perfectly rationally based on their past interactions with adults. To put it overly dramatically: flaking out on your kids ruins their lives!

I’m not sure how much credence to give that interpretation, and suspect that there’s truth in the original interpretation too. But it kind of feels right to me. Flaking out on anyone is really bad. But kids especially.

Just one more reason I’m really grateful to have this new tool!

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Well I blogged something similar in 2007 :slight_smile:

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The book Bringing Up Bébé talks a lot about the concept of “cadre”. I don’t know if it is an invention of the author or a common phrase in France, but the concept is about creating an extremely firm framework with bright lines in which children operate. It’s hard to summarize, but I think the distillation is that:

  • There should be few boundaries.
  • The boundaries that exist should be bright lines.
  • The parents should never give ground, compromise, or weasel w.r.t the boundaries.

As in, picking your (few) battles but fighting those battles to the death as it were. Some concrete examples the author talks about:

  • Having high expectations for eating at restaurants, but keeping those dinners short.
  • Understanding children need to act out sometimes and ignoring these moments if they don’t violate a boundary. e.g. you might never tolerate the child hitting you, but you might tolerate occasional back-talk or throwing things on the floor. Picking fewer battles means the child is “behaving” more often, by definition.
  • Always following up on promises of reward or discipline at basically any cost. The practical advice is to make fewer such promises.

Oh, wow, thank you! I hadn’t heard of Bringing Up Bébé but that sounds highly in line with my parenting philosophy!

Being dependable is super important

I really believe allowing kids to see their parents/valued adults as imperfect is also important.

Modeling adulting is nuanced and while dependability is important, kids don’t need 100% reliability as much as they need to understand the goals and intent.

They also need to know that competent and wonderful people are not perfect.

I could have used more examples of adults admitting to flaking in my life as a child or a better explanation of flaking so I didn’t assume everything was either 100% success or 100% failure.

Which makes even more interesting bc it keeps a dialogue opportunity open without a power struggle. Is 97% reliability enough?

Kids need to have adults model resiliency in the face of falling short of goals and commitments so they learn what that looks like as well.

It seems like can serve this purpose and allow for a nuanced dialogue on meeting expectations while encouraging honest accountability.


Btw, I said the overdramatic version was “flaking out on your kids ruins their lives”. Even though that was (partly) a joke, for the sake of technical correctness (the best kind of correctness) I should point out that correlation doesn’t imply causation and even if that interpretation of the marshmallow experiment is correct, it needn’t be that flaking on your kids ruins their lives. It could be that flaky parents just have flaky kids and it’s all genetic so there’s nothing you can do about it. :slight_smile:

But just in case, maybe be accountable for things you say to your kids.

And like @kim says, doing that with is all the better because it also lays bare your shortcomings, prompts more communication, and lets you model resiliency. I just realized I don’t understand the power struggle part. Maybe you get that by committing to fewer things in the first place? I view that as a key advantage of – making you careful about what you commit to.

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Interesting book summary, @drtall! I’m inherently extremely skeptical of any “this country raises their kids in a monolithic way that happens to be the best idea ever!” books, but that philosophy matches pretty well with what I’ve felt works best. I may have to overcome my bias and pick that up.

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If it’s any consolation, the author is American and isn’t really trying to be authoritative about French parenting. But you’re right that it is one of those clickbait tactics :-/

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UPDATE: The Marshmallow Test has been replicated, a little bit, kind of:

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