The innocuous-sounding “marshmallow test”, many will remember, is the beguiling name given to an established experiment that serves to separate those children who can control their primal urges from those who cannot. Given the choice of confectionery now or a double helping a bit later, the child with a greater chance of success in future life will wait for longer. As such, it is a test that has always carried a pretty gloomy, though sugar-coated, message about our pre-determined fates.
But now this way of measuring young children’s behaviour, used as an index by scientists for 50 years, is offering a cause for celebration. It seems that, contrary to common wisdom, girls and boys are getting better at mastering their immediate impulses. Research released last week by John Protzko, a psychologist at the University of California, showed that across all levels of ability children can now hold out for several minutes longer.
It is a welcome finding that goes against the pessimistic assumption that addictive video games, mobile phones and fizzy drinks are collectively sending our progeny to hell in a designer-branded handcart. In fact, while they probably do face a greater variety of temptation these days, they may also have more opportunity to learn.
Television was once the popular devil that sucked out the brains of our young. Before that, back when my mother was a child in the 1940s, it was the thrilling draw of cheap paperback novels. Now the gaming console is widely agreed to be the gateway to evil. So could it truly be that all those pesky computer games are actually teaching our children more about strategy and the value of patience? If so, we should be pretty impressed, because the adult world around them is pervaded by the consumer message that all grownups are entitled to whatever they momentarily desire.
Parents commonly find it easy to berate their children for a shocking lack of self-discipline and yet also find it hard to recall their own early selfishness. For them, sadly, the heady solipsism of a nursery day is a faded dream.
Of course, the marshmallow test was never intended to be a question of morality. It was just a way to monitor brain development that was also quickly seen as a useful predictor of intellect. Interesting then that just as the ability to wait for marshmallow gratification is growing, so are the IQ levels of our children. Something that is known to psychologists as the Flynn effect, it is proving similarly difficult to explain.
Doom-mongers will argue that IQ tests and marshmallow challenges are scientifically flawed, but shouldn’t we embrace a glimmer of positive news and let our children off the hook a little?
Mothers and fathers get all het up about their kids succumbing to temptation precisely because we all wrestle with its power. Why else would Oscar Wilde’s quip about resisting everything else have proved so memorable?
The fact is, children are small versions of us but with less self-control. And perhaps this is what can make them so irritating: they are a reminder of what fun it used to be to please ourselves. A sadder truth than Oscar’s comes from the late comedian Joey Adams who once helpfully said: “Do not worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older it will avoid you.”