Marshmallows, Delayed Gratification, and the Kingdom of Heaven

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about marshmallows and delayed gratification. Not the roasted kind of marshmallows, mind you, but the ones related to a landmark study known as The Stanford Marshmallow Test. This was a series of experiments conducted by Prof. Mischel in the 1960’s which investigated delayed gratification in preschool children aged 3 – 5. The children were offered a marshmallow, pretzel or cookie and told that if they could wait for 15 minutes, when the experimenter returned, they would receive a second one. The children were observed through a one-way screen. They used all kinds of tactics from covering their eyes to kicking their desk and stroking the marshmallow so as not to succumb to its sweet temptation, although some simply could not wait!

When followed up years later, children who delayed gratification had all kinds of positive outcomes including higher SAT scores, educational attainments and were healthier. The ability to wait and be patient, a key character trait, appeared crucial in predicting later success and positive outcomes.

More recent work in 2012 at the University of Rochester found that trust was an important variable in delaying gratification, which is influenced as much by the environment as it is by innate ability. Researchers introduced a reliable and unreliable condition – promising to return with special art supplies if the child could wait (reliable), or saying they made a mistake, there weren’t any, but the child could use the old supplies (unreliable). They were also promised special stickers in the same manner, followed by the marshmallow test. Children in the reliable condition were significantly more likely to delay gratification than those in the unreliable condition. Children in the reliable group waited up to four times longer (12 minutes) than those in the unreliable group. The authors concluded the children made rational decisions based on the probability of receiving a reward. This research also points to the importance of stability and reliability in the environment and parental response.

These studies are not simply about temptation, but about patience, self-discipline, trust and controlling our passions. Before you go running off to test your child, bear in mind that it is unlikely to work due to your close relationship and your child knowing your likely response!

When our family visited friends in the village of Tugby in England this summer, we were surprised to learn that only 10% of two hundred villagers attended church. This, we were told, was typical in the UK. If you do not believe in God or heaven, or an afterlife, then you may think this is all there is.

There is no question that we live in a materialistic, short-term hedonistic culture where we want immediate rewards. Patience is difficult, especially for little children. Good parenting encourages children to wait for rewards and develop patience. Patience is a virtue and one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It requires endurance, faith and delaying immediate gratification for future blessings.

Speaking of delayed gratification – now to go eat that marshmallow!

Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. James 1:12

written by
Dr Chrissi Hart is a Child Psychologist and author and…
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