Four-year-old Susie sits at a little table in a plain room, listening intently. “Susie, which do you like better: one marshmallow or two marshmallows?” the nice lady asks as she points to the sweet treats sitting on paper plates on the tabletop.
Susie’s face lights up. “Two marshmallows,” she confides with a smile, casting a glance at the plate that holds the double prize.
The lady explains, “I have to go do some work now in the other room. If you wait until I come back, you may have the two marshmallows. But if you decide that you don’t want to wait, you can ring this little bell anytime; then I’ll come back and you can have the one marshmallow instead. Wait for me and get two, or ring the bell anytime and get one. I’m going to go do my work now.”
Susie nods and watches the nice lady leave the room.
In the office the next room over, the adults lean forward in their chairs to get a better view through the one-way mirror. All eyes focus on Susie. What will she do?
Susie is unknowingly part of a study on willpower and delayed gratification, and she is taking The Marshmallow Test. Walter Mischel and his colleagues have offered this little deal to hundreds of preschool children, beginning in the 1960s.
What is even more interesting is that they have tracked many of those children whom they tested, following their lives over the past fifty years, trying to determine whether a child’s display of willpower (or lack of willpower) continued into his adult life and had any effect on it.
“Self-control ability early in life is immensely important for how the rest of life plays out” (The Marshmallow Test, p. 28).
Those children who exhibited strong self-control, waiting (sometimes 20 minutes!) for the adult to come back in order to get the two treats, went on to have better grades, less problems with addictions, and stronger social relationships in their teens and adult years.
Those who gave in to their impulse of the moment, and rang the bell to get a marshmallow right away, continued to have trouble controlling their impulsive desires throughout their lives and struggled to compel themselves to achieve personal goals— academically, physically, and socially.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because, interestingly enough, Mischel’s conclusions match point-for-point what Charlotte Mason said about willpower 100 years ago. Charlotte wrote at length about the will: how important willpower is in a person’s life, how it can become fatigued, what to do when it becomes fatigued, and that willpower is a strong factor in successful adult living.
“Character is the result of conduct regulated by will. We say, So-and-so has a great deal of character, such another is without character; and we might express the fact equally by saying, So-and-so has a vigorous will, such another has no force of will. We all know of lives, rich in gifts and graces, which have been wrecked for the lack of a determining will” (Home Education, p. 319).
Charlotte also gave strategies that a parent can use to help a child develop self-control, or cultivate stronger willpower. She knew that strengthening a child’s will is an important part of parenting.
“The man who can make himself do what he wills has the world before him, and it rests with parents to give their children this self-compelling power as a mere matter of habit” (School Education, p. 20).
“Children should be taught to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will’ ” (A Philosophy of Education, p. 128).
And that was Walter Mischel’s other big take-away from The Marshmallow Test and its subsequent studies: self-control can be taught. Willpower can be strengthened. It is not, as some people used to think, purely up to genetics. Yes, some people find it easier than others, but all children can grow in their self-control, and that will benefit them into their adult lives.
“Learning and practicing some strategies for enabling self-control early in life is a lot easier than changing hot, self-destructive, automative response patterns established and engrained over a lifetime” (The Marshmallow Test, p. 45).
Charlotte would agree.
“Most of us desire to do well; what we want to know is, how to make ourselves do what we desire. And here is the line which divides the effective from the non-effective people, the great from the small, the good from the well-intentioned and respectable; it is in proportion as a man has self-controlling, self-compelling power that he is able to do, even of his own pleasure; that he can depend upon himself, and be sure of his own action in emergencies” (Home Education, p. 323).
So how can we, as parents, help our children develop strong willpower? Next time we’ll take a look at five strategies that both Charlotte Mason and Walter Mischel recommended.
In the meantime, you can read more of Charlotte’s ideas on the Way of the Will (ideas now happily validated in the 21st century) in these passages of her books:
Home Education, pages 317–329
Ourselves, Book 2, pages 126–173
A Philosophy of Education, pages 128–138
Note: Walter Mischel authored the book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success, from which the referenced quotes above are taken. Be aware that it is written from an evolutionary worldview and includes some Freudian philosophy as psychologists try to explain the Why behind the How. Christians will have a different answer to Why the brain works as it does, but the How information is still fascinating and helpful.