In 1972, a psychologist at Stanford University conducted an experiment now widely known as “The Marshmallow Test”. In that experiment, children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow; they were told that they could eat the marshmallow, but that they would receive a second marshmallow if they simply waited for the experiment proctor to return in fifteen minutes. The results of this test suggested that children who resisted the siren call of the marshmallow would later see better SAT scores, educational achievement, and physical health. The lesson: children who can control themselves when faced with special treats are better off as adults.
As you all know, Kina is a big fan of Special Treats. We invented “Special Treats” back when Kina was potty training, in the early days of this newspaper. At the time, Special Treats were M+Ms that we doled out as rewards for using the toilet. As she grew tired of M+Ms, though, we experimented with different snacks, slowly amassing a crate of snacks in our pantry that Kina has since come to believe are hers for the taking whenever the fancy strikes. Mostly, she fancies little bags of fruit snacks, which she can barely resist.
It’s hard to blame her for this lack of restraint, really, because we haven’t done a great job of suggesting that restraint really matters here. It is a pandemic, to be clear, and surviving a pandemic calls for Special Treats. I have had no interest or energy in training my child to see fruit snacks as a meaningful reward. I have also, frankly, been just fine with issuing those rewards as needed for a kid who is persevering through a year-long winter unlike any I ever experienced. The child, in other words, can eat the damn marshmallow.
Still, we do make deals around here, and it’s not like we’re made of fruit snacks. Kina has taken to asking if she can place a bag of snacks in her backpack an hour before we leave the house, knowing that any significant delay in our departure might result in her simply opening the snacks before we even step out the door. This is clever, and it has worked on at least one occasion. We have since picked up on the trick, however, and today we made it extremely clear that if she ate the snacks at home, there would be no snacks later. I have been working on my Serious Face, and Kina seemed to register that I might not actually pack any backup snack. With that in mind, she placed the snack bag back where it belonged and meditated on its existence for three hours. I would like to think that those little gelatinous nubbins of congealed apple juice tasted all the better for that delay when we finally busted them out at McGolrick Park. But does it actually mean anything?
A restaged (and expanded) version of the original Marshmallow Test, with ten times the participants, and controlling for things like family background and income, later found that the most salient contribution to the socioeconomic success of participating children was not their capacity to resist a marshmallow, but the socioeconomic success of their families. This is relevant in two ways: First, it means that children in under-resourced communities could sit all day in front of that marshmallow and not necessarily see the result in better SAT scores. It is equally true, though, that children with more privileged backgrounds might eat all the marshmallows they want and still come out on top. I’m not suggesting that restraint isn’t important, but there are lots of reasons why a kid is going to want a marshmallow, and what I’d really rather focus on is whether or not the kid is all right.
Let your kid have the marshmallow. They’re doing the best they can. And so are you.
Laurea wants you to know that she designed today’s cover of Parade—a radiant sun— before drawing runes, which is one of her very favorite things to do in moments of stress and uncertainty. When she drew her rune, it was sowelu, the Rune of Wholeness—the Sun. This rune is sometimes illustrated with the following old Icelandic poem:
ᛋ Sól er skýja skjöldr
ok skínandi röðull
ok ísa aldrtregi.
Translated into English, this reads
Sun is the shield of the clouds
and shining ray
and destroyer of ice.
Winter might be on its way out. You can thank Laurea. Also, please thank Kina for the ocean, which she cut out with her little pinking shears and glued on her very own.