Tag Archives: grit

30 years later: The consequences of NOT eating a marshmallow

marshmallowsA little while back, I blogged about the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment and the astonishing things it has taught us about the value of self-control. A quick description: preschoolers were placed alone in a room with a plate of marshmallows and told they could eat one now, or wait 15 minutes and have two.  (For a more detailed description of the experiment and it’s impact on the participants as they grew up, click here). 

The 30% kids who were able to delay gratification showed higher SAT scores and social competence as high schooler, and handled stress and self-organization better as adults. As a result, the study is frequently cited as an important demonstration of the value of self-control and willpower. This is important, because other studies have shown that self-control is something that can (and clearly should) be taught to young children.

An exciting new wrinkle in this study is additional research published by Tanya Schlam  at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who followed up with the former preschoolers, (now in their 30s). As reported by Slate, Schlam and her colleagues discovered that each minute the subjects had been able to wait before devouring the marshmallow accurately predicted a “0.2 point percent decrease in their current body mass index. Schlam told Slate, “Although the effect was not particularly large, the presence of any effect three decades later is noteworthy,” she argues.

“It involves being more strategic,” Schlam wrote to me. “So a child can use will power to delay gratification, but they have a lot of other techniques at their disposal that they can combine with using will power. For example, from studies with this sample, we know that when the marshmallows are hidden by a tray or when the experimenter tells the kids to think about the marshmallows as ‘fluffy white clouds,’ the kids are able to delay much longer.” Kids who picked up the marshmallow and smelled it, on the other hand, soon gobbled it up. Delayed gratification, then, is about “knowing intuitively or being taught techniques that enable your cool system to kick in (which is reflective and rational) rather than the hot system (which is reflexive and impulsive).”

Schlam points out that the best route to self-control is to avoid having to exercise it: to stay away from trays of marshmallows and cookies. But since we live in a world of too much food, it’s a comfort to know that we can teach kids to hold back on their own. Even kids whose reason for delaying gratification is that they want a second marshmallow.

Self-control is about more than weight loss, of course. And weight loss for many is about more than self-control. But nevertheless, this new finding is exciting for the way it connects childhood behaviors with adult traits, and for the emphasis it places on teaching kids self-control.

So how can we teach our kids that kind of willpower? Some suggestions (feel free to add others):

  • Encouraging them to save up for toys or products they want. Or wait until their birthday/ holiday time to get them.
  • Letting even very young children make challenging choices between desired items on their own. (You can have a snack now, but then there is no dessert after dinner. OR You can buy that t-shirt now but then you won’t have enough money for the dress you’ve been saving for. )
  • Letting them experience the real consequences for their behavior: if you don’t do your homework now, you will have to do it after dinner when everyone else is watching TV/ playing outside/ going to bed.
  • Modelling self-control yourself.

 

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True grit: check your kid’s resilience with this quick test

Tough Afternoon

We'll get 'em next time.

Some kids seem to sail through life’s ups and downs without too much effort. When crappy stuff comes their way, they pick themselves up, maybe cry a few tears and slap on a couple of bandaids, then they keep on going.

Other kids, not so much. When faced with stress or adversity, no matter how big or small, kids in this group tend to falter. Can’t cope. Their grades suffer. Friendships languish. Maybe they have trouble sleeping or eating. Perhaps they get a lot of headaches or stomachaches.

Experts have tried to predict the things that make any individual more likely to fall in the first group — the resilient group — than the second one. I’ve written about resilience here a number of times (see here and here for two recent examples), and it’s pretty clear that it’s a complex topic. Last week, I wrote about the way in which control fits into resilience, and referenced the famous “marshmellow experiment.”

After reading that post, a colleague sent me a link to an interesting New York Times Magazine article called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In this long, sometimes tedious piece, the principals of some New York City area schools experiment with different character-building programs in order to boost long term achievement. It turns out that IQ scores alone aren’t very good predictors of who will go on to college, who will actually finish their degrees.

We know that character is one of the 7 C’s of resilience, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But it’s always been notoriously difficult to measure. That is, until a professor named Angela Duckworth, then a doctoral student, sought some way to make sense of the qualities that go beyond IQ: “People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. ” (New York Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 2011).

She named this quality “grit” and came up with a scale for measuring it. It’s deceptively simple, only takes a few minutes to fill out, and relies on the usually notoriously unreliable method of self-reporting. But when she tested it, she found that it was powerfully predictive of success. She tested it on college students and found that those who scored high on the Grit Scale had higher GPA’s, even if they initially had lower college board tests. She tested it on West Point cadets, and it turned out to be the most accurate predictor of who finished the grueling program.

When they tested students in elementary and high schools, they found that while IQ scores predicted scores on government achievement tests, the Grit Scale was the better predictor of report card grades. Makes sense, since those latter grades include finishing homework projects, in-class participation and behaviour. And that has a lot more to do with self-control and character.

How well would your child do on the Grit Scale? Before you take the test with them, consider that it might be most helpfully read as a rubric of skills you want to help your child develop. A low grit score does not spell the death knell for your child’s aspirations! This scale is used by schools to help build on those areas of weakness. You can improve their self-control, their self-discipline, etc. So take the final number with a grain of salt and see it as an opportunity.

Short Grit Scale

Directions for taking the Grit Scale: Please respond to the following 8 items. Be honest – there are no right or wrong answers!

1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

2. Setbacks don’t discourage me.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

3. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

4. I am a hard worker.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

5. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

6. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

7. I finish whatever I begin.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

8. I am diligent.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

Scoring:

1. For questions 2, 4, 7 and 8 assign the following points:

5 = Very much like me

4 = Mostly like me

3 = Somewhat like me

2 = Not much like me

1 = Not like me at all

2. For questions 1, 3, 5 and 6 assign the following points:

1 = Very much like me

2 = Mostly like me

3 = Somewhat like me

4 = Not much like me

5 = Not like me at all

Add up all the points and divide by 8. The maximum score on this scale is 5 (extremely gritty), and the lowest score on this scale is 1 (not at all gritty).

Grit Scale citation:

Duckworth, A.L, & Quinn, P.D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S).  Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Duckworth%20and%20Quinn.pdf

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

 

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