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A couple weeks ago, my youngest daughter noticed that one of the pumpkins in our patch had broken free of the vine.  It looked ripe, so we baked the seeds, cooked, bagged and froze it for later.  Now I live with a girl who finds life bleak and meaningless without pumpkin pie.  She loves to bake, so at every turn she implores me.

When I say, “no” she quickly changes her tactic. “How long–that’s all I’m asking–” she pleads, “until we can make pumpkin pie?”   I won’t be pinned down.  I’ve learned it plays into her strategy.

One thing at a time, I tell her.  Now is harvest time.  Now is blanching and freezing and canning time.  For everything there is a season: gather stones, plant, reap, turn turn turn and all that.  You know? We still have tomatoes and peppers and carrots and squash and more pumpkins to put up for winter.

Unconvinced she continues her quest to wear me down.  This weekend, seeking relief, I told her the marshmallow story.  I mean, if the kid is unable to grasp the metaphors in the Book of Ecclesiastes or appreciate the catchy melody of a Byrds hit, maybe, I reasoned, it was time to give science a try.

In the late sixties, Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor of psychology, conducted a series of experiments involving preschool children and marshmallows.

Each of Mischel’s experiments began by inviting a nursery school child into a “game room.”  Actually, little larger than closet with just a chair, table and plate with a marshmallow, the room must have sooner resembled a torture chamber than a game room—at least to the four-year-olds in the study.  Because once seated at the table, Mischel would inform the child that she had a choice: after he left the room she could eat the one marshmallow in front of her or wait fifteen minutes (an eternity for a four-year-old) and get two marshmallows.

A quick Internet search turns up a number of videos of just this type of experiment and, as you can imagine, they’re hilarious.  Some kids reach for the marshmallow even before the door closes.  Some stare at it for a time, trying to resist.  Others pick it up and smell it, or lick it, or pick at it before finally succumbing to the temptation.  Others do everything they can to distract themselves–covering their eyes or singing the ABC’s.

Mischel repeated this experiment six hundred and fifty three times.  Most of the children held out for an average of less than three minutes. About thirty per cent however, successfully delayed gratification until he returned.

It was an interesting study of how (and how many) children were able to resist temptation.  But perhaps the most fascinating data was not collected until over a decade later.  In 1981, Mischel began sending out surveys to each of the kids in the original study.

The results were striking.  The longer a child was able to delay gratification, the more likely she was to have also avoided behavioral problems both in and out of school.  The “delayers” as they came to be called, also had higher S.A.T. scores. They handled stress better and had an easier time paying attention and maintaining friendships. On average, children who waited fifteen minutes for the second marshmallow had S.A.T. scores two hundred and ten points higher than the kids who only lasted thirty seconds.

It’s tough, because we live in an increasingly “get-it-now” culture.  Yet we know good things still come to those who can wait.  Save up and use cash, or put it on the card?  Study for that test, or play another video game?  Enter the job market, or get that degree?

For everything there is a season, I tried to explain to my daughter.  Do you want one pie now?  Or can you wait, get as many pumpkins and squash in the freezer as we can before they rot, and have ten pies later?

A thoughtful grin spread across her face.  She may not be quite ready to give up, but at least I know she’s thinking.  There is a time for every purpose.  As for learning to delay gratification, now is as good a time as any.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org

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