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Christmas and the Marshmellow Test

I was driving into work a little later than I normally do a few days ago and the CBC radio show “The Current” was discussing reader feedback to a piece they had aired. In the piece, a “famous marshmallow test” was discussed.

I had never heard of this test, but it is really interesting and directly related to my post on giving my kids the gift of anticipation. It was an experiment conducted by Stanford University in the 1960s with children on deferred gratification. Basically, they sat a child in a room with a single marshmallow and gave the child a choice between eating it right away or waiting for 15 minutes and then receiving two marshmellows instead.

I found this TED video that provides an overview of this experiment and what the results are supposed to predict. It also includes priceless footage of children trying to resist the marshmallow!

The original experiment concluded that the children who could resist the marshmallow and wait for the fifteen minutes (which was about 1/3 of the 600 children) used a crucial skill: “strategic allocation of attention.” These kids were able to distract themselves, and their mind, away from the marshmallow by walking about the room, playing peek-a-boo, etc. The study continues to track these children and concludes that being able to resist the marshmallow is actually an accurate predictor of success in life — academic and otherwise.

Now, back to Christmas … those presents sitting under the tree are an enormous temptation aren’t they? Last Christmas, my daughter carefully pulled back the tape on virtually all her presents and ruined any kind of surprise we might have had on Christmas. So this year, we didn’t put any of her presents under the tree in advance.

Except one, that is.

Hubby wrapped up a box of cake mix and left it under the tree. She spent a great deal of time shaking, smelling and looking at it but she didn’t actually peek. Apparently, there’s hope for her yet.  😉


  1. Over 30 years ago, I found out that my wife was sneakily unwrapping her presents enough to find out what they were. The next year I made a number of pen marks on the wrapping paper where it over-lapped so that it would be difficult to rewrap with all of the marks aligned — and told her what I had done. To my knowledge, she never again tried to find out what what she got by unwrapping the packages.

    These days, we each prepare lists in advance of things we’d like, so, while there’s less of a surprise, there are very few items that are unsatisfactory.

  2. My sister used to go through the Christmas closet every year and I used to avoid conversations with her that might come around to her knowledge of the contents. She wanted to share but I really didn’t want to know. I don’t know if I would have managed to win a second marshmellow but I think she would have without blinking.

    I wish I had the bandwidth to look at that footage. I can imagine it’s priceless. Will save the link for another time…

    All the best to you and yours,
    K xo

  3. My husband loves the marshmallow experiment! We talk about it all the time. Kiernan more or less (as we expected) has always told us one marshmallow is just fine with him – no need to wait 15 minutes to get 2. :)

    Kids are so interesting!

  4. @Mike – thanks for popping by, nice to have you here! I got a good chuckle out of the lengths you went to preserve your presents’ surprise from your wife!

    @Krista – oh, the things us folks take for granted when we’re not in Africa, eh? The footage is cute, but don’t worry, you’re not missing that much. At least you’ve got the weather on your side. Hope you and your very cute boys had an amazing Christmas together.

    @Lara – Kiernan is brilliant. Who needs deferred gratification when one is capable of moderating their gratifaction in the first place!

  5. I second Lara’s comment about her son with regards to my kids. They would likely go ahead with just one marshmallow, not because they don’t want to wait, but because would be quite satisfied with just one. So I expect if they were part of the experiment, they would have skewed the results.
    As for opening gifts, my older sister would force me to go open her wrapped gifts hiding in our parents’ closet, wouldn’t do it herself (always did like a scapegoat, that girl) but absolutely had to know what she was getting!

  6. @Kathryn – Well, having spent time with all three of your children, I would have no doubt that they would all politely agree to simply have the one marshmallow. (I adore those children of yours!) But I forgot to mention that this experiment was with 4-year-olds.

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