Apparently, an Oreo cookie can determine your child’s future. In a recent Radiolab podcast, hosts Jack Abumrad and Robert Krulwich contacted psychologist, Dr. Walter Mischel, who did a very simple but profound study using an Oreo cookie and time. In the minds of his elementary school subjects, he used lots and lots of time. The results of his experiment dictated that some kids are designed to fail academically, but that a very simple set of teachable skills might rewire this outcome.
The study involved a battle most every parent has confronted: You cozy up to the dreaded P.O.S. display at the checkout counter of your local supermarket, where your daughter inevitably notices the array of sugary treats. The negotiation begins. “Mommy can I have that one?” she asks. “No,” you respond. “What about that one,” she asks again. “Let’s wait,” you counter. This goes on until finally she is begging with tears in her eyes. “Okay,” you say. “If you wait until we get home I will give you an even better treat.”
Does she demand the candy now, forgoing whatever phantom treat is promised for the future? Or does she agree to wait for a better treat later, biding her time by starting up a game of ‘Guess-the-treat?’ This may seem like a fairly commonplace interaction, but if the little girl in question is around four years old, it can be a telling indicator as to what her life will be like in later years.
It is termed ‘Delayed Gratification,’ and Dr. Mischel tortured a group of young students (including his own daughters) with his theory, by promising them one Oreo cookie now, or two later. His study yielded the results he expected. At around age four, something clicks in the minds of children. They suddenly grasp the idea that waiting for a greater reward later is a smarter choice than taking the instantly gratifying treat in front of them. But what Dr. Mischel did not expect to find out is just how lasting his findings were.
Many years after his initial study in the 1960s, the students who chose to wait for two cookies, scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs, and had higher than average GPAs. The theory now is that teaching your child the skills needed to endure a wait (which mostly involves distraction), might affect their ability to succeed academically later in life.
In my estimation, which is not a professional one, parents who employ toys and games that foster imaginative or contemplative play at an early age (plain building blocks, featureless dolls, memory cards – most green toys fit the bill), are presenting their kids with tools that foster the skills required to endure the concept of ‘Delayed Gratification.’