Despite what parents might think, kids have gotten better at self-control

Waiting out a treat
Think the behavior of kids is in decline? The data show the opposite.

Forget fears that the digital age is creating a generation of children who must have everything immediately. Some kids these days are better at delaying gratification than their parents and even their grandparents were as children, according to new behavioral research published this week in the journal Developmental Psychology.

A team of psychologists from Pennsylvania State University and five other institutions across the country tested 520 children, ages 3 to 5, to see whether they would turn down a small, but immediate treat in order to get a bigger treat later. Their performance was compared to that of kids who took an identical test in earlier decades.

In all cases, the children who were tested were from relatively well-off families. Deprivation, researchers note, could produce very different results.

The researchers used the so-called marshmallow test, developed more than 50 years ago, to offer children a simple choice: accept one marshmallow now or wait 10 to 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows. Each child is told there is no right option — it’s up to them to wait or not.

Most children tested in the 1960s and ’80s caved and gobbled the single marshmallow before the lab staffer could return with another treat. In the ’60s, children (who might be the grandparents of today’s toddlers) waited just five minutes on average. But a majority of today’s kids — 54 percent — waited at least 10 minutes to secure their double treat.

The researchers calculated that, on average, a child tested in the 1960s performed at the same level as a modern child who is a full year younger.

The results fly in the face of commonly held assumptions about child behavior. According to a survey conducted as part of the new study, most adults think children have less self-control now than children did 50 years ago. When asked, seven in 10 adults assumed youngsters would grab at the marshmallow sooner.

“It’s a really interesting juxtaposition,” says Martin Franklin, a father, softball coach, and behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Adults are making assumptions about how poorly today’s kids are behaving, he noted, but those assumptions “just didn’t hold up at all.”

“From a scientific standpoint, [the new study] seems legitimate,” said Franklin, who applauds the authors for clearly discussing the limitations of their work. Researchers only tested “typically developing children” living near a major university, whose parents have good incomes. The children were also mostly white and had parents or caregivers who were willing and able to enroll them in behavioral research. The authors also noted that all of the children who participated were free from stimulant medication at the time of the study. So the findings, researchers note, can’t be assumed to apply to all children.

Efforts have been made to link a child’s ability to resist immediate gratification with all kinds of benefits later in life — higher SAT scores, lower divorce rates, and more — but such linkages often fail to stand up to scrutiny.

Still, dispelling generalizations about children getting more impatient is a good thing, said Franklin. “In my own experience coaching softball and also with the kids I see in my practice, that generalization just doesn’t fit,” he said.

The authors of the study discussed several possible reasons for the improved performance over the years, including better nutrition, more exposure to symbolic reasoning, higher enrollment in preschool, and even child-oriented television programs.

Franklin finds many of these explanations plausible. Children who grew up in the 1960s didn’t have exposure to kids’ TV, he noted, and “Sesame Street is just fantastic.”