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Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

10 thoughts on “Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters”

  1. Ranae McKenzie

    Could you leave a link to the marshmallow experiment video for those who have not seen it to watch?

    1. Editor
  2. Jean Marie Lescohier

    Marshmallow-Dad probably has a lot on his plate. He sounded like he expects unsatisfactory behavior from his daughter. And then he holds his son up to compare her to. If he tried a bit of your sister-in-laws “convince me” with her it might help.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  3. Michelle Atterby

    David I do agree with your perspective that children lie as a form of faulty problem solving. However, from a parent’s perspective that has always practiced positive parenting I do not agree with the solution you proposed in your example. If I am genuinely curious about why my child lied then I want to enter the conversation with understanding, curiosity and a desire to help them in developing better problem solving skills. In your example you suggest a punitive method. This is more likely to shut your child down into defensiveness before there is any opportunity to find out the ‘why’ she lied. You’ve just taught her that lying equals punishment. Consequences first, explanation second. Rather, to enter the conversation with the intention of creating a safe container that she can reveal to you, her reasons for lying and offer reflective listening. Now you are building trust, safety and conversation, which is more likely to stay with her when she considers lying as an option next time. Consequences are natural, but how we set them up can have positive or negative outcomes.

    1. davidmaxfield

      That’s an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing it. I agree that I have twin goals: a.) find out why she lied and b.) convince her that lying to me is never a good solution. I guess I do want to teach her that lying to me will bring punishment. I will impose a consequence, either before or after seeking information about why she lied. Starting with the consequence, and making sure it’s appropriate, gets it out of the way–so it’s not a second shoe waiting to drop.

      What do others think?

  4. J. Nielsen

    “One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.”

    I love the statement “Convince me” because it is open-ended. This way children are taught not to fear asking a question or questions that could result in a closed-ended answer. They are also being taught to think logically, to reason, and weigh the pros and cons of their request.

    What a brilliant way to teach values and solid judgment to a child!

  5. Kathy Slattengren

    I would also suggest not immediately imposing my consequence on the daughter. I’d start off with “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. What’s going on?” Let her explain. Next discuss your feelings about being misled and ask her how she plans to rebuild your trust. Ask her to write out a plan – what happened, why she made the choices she did and how she will make amends. Once she creates her plan, talk it over and add additional consequences if needed. By having her figure out how to make amends, she does the majority of the thinking and is likely to learn more from her mistake.

    I’m also concerned with the parent’s description of the son who confesses and “take his stripes”. This leads me to believe that the parent is hitting the child as punishment. Hitting kids is never OK. Hitting is punishment but what you really want is discipline:

    1. davidmaxfield

      Kathy, I like your approach to dealing with the lie. It puts the child into a new kind of problem-solving situation–rebuilding trust. And I like the idea of having her write out her plan.
      I agree that hitting a child is not an effective way to build discipline. I did not take the “stripes” comment literally. But, it’s important to check, right?

      1. Kathy Slattengren

        Unfortunately many parents hit their kids because they don’t have better tools.

        I also realized that if the parent jumps right to the consequence … they are breaking the Crucial Skills process where facts and the stories they are telling themselves is presented tentatively.

        What if they learn that their daughter sent them a text (which they hadn’t seen) telling them she was going to Tanner’s house because she and Sarah were done with the homework? Or what if she left them a note on the kitchen table they missed saying she was going to Tanner’s instead of Sarah’s house?

        It reminds me of the story told in Crucial Conversations book about the wife jumping to the conclusion that her husband is having an affair after seeing a credit card charge from a local hotel. There was another explanation … but she made the situation much worse by jumping to conclusions.

  6. CFM

    So I love this article and all the comments, but lets suppose you never used these great ideas with your kids and now they are in their late teens early 20’s and you want to teach them these concepts about lying and delayed gratification. ??

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