Marshmallows – a food blog

Marshmallow and self-regulation go together like peaches and cream, ham and pineapple on a pizza…. Wait a second this is sounding like a food blog!! Just what are marshmallows and self-regulation doing in the same sentence??

Buried deep in the recesses of my first year uni knowledge vault is a distant memory of a study conducted by Walter Mischel and a team of researchers at Stanford University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, ring any bells?

In this study 4-year-old children were presented with a marshmallow and informed that they could either eat a marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows. Some children gobbled the marshmallow immediately, while others managed to wait the full 15 minutes and receive the reward of a second marshmallow.

The researchers followed up with the children over the next few decades and discovered that those children who had managed to wait for the second marshmallow had a number of positive outcomes including:

  • better emotional coping skills

  • higher rates of educational attainment

  • lower BMI

  • lower divorce rates

  • lower rates of addiction

So what does that mean for our children? Can we teach our children self-regulation or are the marshmallow gobblers on a trajectory to doom??

Researchers continued with the marshmallow experiment with various tweaks and discovered that with effective strategies children could resist the lure of the marshmallow. Simply put self-regulation is a muscle that can be built up!

A few strategies for nurturing self-regulation:

  • Positive distraction

Thinking about or engaging in another activity can support self-regulation. How many times have you tried to distract yourself from eating just one more TimTam with a walk, a carrot stick or even cleaning the bathroom?

  • Self-talk

Talking to yourself about the situation and how you can resolve/calm down/delay is a tool for supporting self-regulation. Choosing your emotion and how to respond to a situation. When faced with a challenging situation rather than having a meltdown, articulating your feelings and options can bring a sense of calm.

  • Avoidance

When the marshmallow was covered, the kids were not tempted to eat it. We can use this strategy to support self-regulation. Obviously not in all situations but who hasn’t disabled their phone’s Facebook app to remove the temptation?

  • Focus on the end goal

Thinking about the end goal can provide a focus and scaffold the development of self-regulation. Focussing on your end goal can provide the motivation for not sleeping in and getting to the gym at 5am, at least some mornings.

By modelling these practices and how we do our own self-regulation (more of that talking out loud about what’s going on in your head) we can support the development of self-regulation in our children. The bobo doll experiment of the 1960s (I don’t think this would pass the ethics board these days) clearly demonstrated the power of role models. So go on say no to the last Tim Tam and flex your self-regulation muscles with pride.