Waiting for Marshmallows

The Marshmallow Test

Photo by Rebecca Freeman on Unsplash

In 1972, Stanford professor Walter Mishel conducted a study in which a child was offered the choice between a marshmallow right away or two marshmallows if they waited until the researcher came back in fifteen minutes. 

Researchers followed up with children thirty years later. The first twenty seconds of the waiting period during the experiment was telling. Those children who held out for the bigger reward, delaying gratification, tended to have better life outcomes as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other life measures. 

2018 study by Tyler Watts of NYU and Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan of UC Irvine replicated the earlier experiment, demonstrating that for kids who held out for the larger treat, self-control alone couldn’t predict future outcomes. As Jason Collins, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics and Evolutionary Biology, explains, the reason may not be the problem-solving strategies originally believed, but rather, socioeconomic status, parental characteristics and a set of measures of cognitive and behavioral development were greater predictors.

Marshmallows cannot predict our child’s outcomes, but the actual upbringing has a significant effect. The way we live, the practices we put into effect for ourselves and our children has an effect on how well we do when can’t get what we want, when we want it.

There are opportunities for those practices, even now at Christmas time. 

Christmas Day is our marshmallow. For me, it feels bigger and better if I wait a little longer. 

We call this the holiday season because there are many key holidays in it. In our house, the Christmas season is reserved for the time beginning Christmas day and (following the historic tradition) continues in high festivity for the 12 Days of Christmas, a celebration rather than a countdown.

Thus, we practice Advent,

its own season with its own traditions. For some, this means a December countdown to Christmas Day. For others this means the four Sundays before Christmas, counted by the lighting of a candle per week around the Advent Wreath. Like the paper chain at the end of the school year, the countdown both builds a sense of anticipation and strengthens the feeling of the “not yet.”

Second, considering winter and Christmas as separate.

The commercial pull is strong. Rather than fully resist, we embrace the cozy essentials. I distinguish between winter and Christmas decorations and music. We create time for “x” and a time for “y.” This prevents burnout on “XY” before Christmas Day has arrived. It adds multiple layers of tradition for my children to savor. 

By doing this, like the pumpkin spice and color orange in our autumnal traditions, we embrace wintry traditions with blankets, hot chocolate and pom pom garland. We sing “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bells” but keep other songs like “Rudolph” and “Joy to the World” for Christmas Day and beyond.

Third, we find other ways to practice meaning beyond shopping.

I love gift-giving and getting, but the sense that there is more to it is true. This year we have been reading from the Read-Aloud-Revival reading lists which add texture to the change of seasons in sunny California. We have our religious observances in one of the richest times of the year. And, for the kids, we take advantage of the craft activities Hughson offers.

Hughson Christmas Festival

We can rely on the local library to go all-out saving me from the world of glitter, construction paper and paint. We could spend a nominal fee per child at ReInvent Art Studio. But this season, more than all the other options, I look forward to the generous heaping on of activities at the Hughson Christmas Festival. Last year this meant unexpected photographs with Santa, Christmas cookie decorating, and craft activities for the different levels of ability in my family. There were Christmas cartoons to savor in a nook away from the bustle of the craft table. 

Christmas festivities as crafts and food are part of how we prepare for festivity. The separation of Advent and Christmas is not an issue for many, but with burnout prevalent, the rush to get it all done overwhelming a supposed season of peace, Advent practices might just present the solution. 

We may not be able to shape our home life the way we want. We cannot alter the past. But we can create tangible ways to delay gratification that will not only help us to grow in patience but also help us increase our enjoyment of intentional celebration. 

Something to think about, with or without marshmallows.

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