Experiments with marshmallows
The marshmallow experiment is a test of patience for children. An adult puts a marshmallow in front of a child’s nose, in connection with a tricky task: if you wait until I come back, you get twice as much.
Then the adult leaves the room and the child is left alone – with his impulse control and the little angel and devil on his shoulders: immediate satisfaction of the desire for sweet things or quick solution of the riddle, the pleasure of a sweet marshmallow versus reward postponement, i.e. the adult’s promise that his own patience will be doubly rewarded in the end.
Now the actual Marshamallow experiment by Harvard and Stanford psychologist Walter Mische is already a good half century old and has not only been confirmed in recent years and decades. This is especially true of the long-term findings. Did the more patient children later become more successful because they were more patient adults who could control and direct their impulses well? How much does the self-regulation of the family environment influence the development of patience? What effect does it have on children if, despite being patient, the promise of twice the amount of sweets is not kept?
Digital marshmallows and the money-patience game
Let us imagine that marshmallows can stand for many different things, for example money. Imagine further that we as parents promise our children that if they are patient and save money instead of giving in to every temptation, they will be rewarded later – with more money in their piggy bank.
We see immediately that:
- money somehow doesn’t look (and taste) as tasty as marshmallows.
- money is less (tangible) and therefore much more abstract, especially when it only appears in the form of numbers in a virtual account.
- it is difficult to weigh up immediate rewards and deferred rewards. What is more valuable: living in the moment and consume immediately or save up money to spend it later in a targeted way directed to a goal. If the goal is not tangible and visually, it can be difficult for the child to grasp the value of a deferred reward. In other words: How do you convey the idea of saving for later times when the child simply and happily does not know such long-term situations?
So what could the marshmallow experiment look like in digital times and how could it be adapted for a contemporary financial education?
Convec Values, Visualise Goals
To a certain extent, renunciation also requires the ability to suffer. If one wants to resist the impulse to buy immediately, the reward must be all the more attractive. And this in turn is what it does when the desire is vividly represented. On the other hand, most wishes today can be found as digital images on Amazon, in Google searches, on YouTube or in social media. Something quickly lands in the virtual shopping basket and is paid for with PayPal or another digital payment solution with a few clicks. The monetary value disappears just as quickly as the order process is completed.
Five tips on how children learn to wait
1. Handicrafts, painting, gluing – the classic way
When your child paints a picture of what he or she wants to buy, not only is the imagination stimulated, but it also conveys to a certain extent that waiting time can be made meaningful and fun. The same applies to pictures that are photographed by yourself, cut out of a paper brochure, stuck into a “wish folder” and possibly even labelled. Ultimately, self-painted, photographed or handcrafted pictures enable a more personal identification with the savings goal and also encourage saving and patience.
2. Making monetary value tangible
In the end, it’s just like with growing. If your child sees that the line in the door frame this month is a little higher than last month’s, he or she will try to grow even faster. Sure, height is one of those things. But the increasing weight of the piggy bank on a scale playfully tells children that saving means something is growing. And if there is book-keeping of the successful process of saving, financial education gets enriched and becomes more suitable for children.
3. Set goals through play
Why not make a small dice game, whose end target is the desired toy. Every week’s pocket money brings you one step closer to this goal, and if there is extra money to help in the household, your child can even advance two fields instead of one.
4. Keeping promises
Fixed payment dates for pocket money should always be adhered to. This keeps the saving mood high. We know from Marschmallow follow-up experiments: If the promise to double the amount was not kept, the children immediately ate the candy on the second attempt.
5. The end in sight
It is not only us adults who want to know when we have reached which stage and how far we still have to go. So set very concrete savings targets together with your child at the beginning. Calculate in time units your child is familiar with: Five more times to sleep/get up, ten more times to go to kindergarten/ school, etc. and THEN you can buy your toys, games or smartphone. Or also: Another 200 grams / three more strokes and the piggy bank has enough money in its belly.
Especially for children it is important that they are accompanied and encouraged in their patience for money. If parents set an example of impulse control and teach their children in their own language and in their own world that saving is worthwhile, children will gradually learn that while renouncing money is demanding, saving for a goal and as a game more than compensates for this renunciation.
The marshmallow test as a book can be found here (German): Walter Mischel: Der Marshmallow-Test: Willensstärke, Belohnungsaufschub und die Entwicklung
If you want to learn more about how German and Cameroonian children score on the marshmallow test, we recommend the following article on orf.at (German): „Marshmallow-Test“ in cultural comparison.