There is more to the story; much more.
The basis of a Stanford study, called “The Marshmallow Experiment”,
that was begun in the 1960’s and has been replicated several times (and validated)… looking at the long-term effects of delayed gratification that could be demonstrated in 4-5 years old who were followed through adulthood, for 40 years!
The ability to delay eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes to get TWO instead of just one marshmallow, was indicative of abilities that would translate into an increased life-long capacity to delay immediate gratification for long-term benefits. The implication was that the inherent genetic programming of the child had already pre-determined their path.
That was the implication of the study, but further study brought out more insights which creates a picture of a much more complicated process; one in which the environment actually plays a significant role, in the first 4 years. The environment that the parents create, actually.
As a labor & delivery nurse for some 25 years+ I’m well versed in the innate personality differences that are present from the very moment of a newborn’s first breath. Having had the unique experience to be part of over several thousand births, it always continues to be incredibly inspiring.
A newborn, in those first few minutes of life, show great variability in their response to emerging into the world. Some open their eyes and look around at the new world that they have entered, calm & accepting, while others have their eyes clamped shut as they scream bloody murder until placed in their mother’s arms and are calmed by her heartbeat and touch. There is indeed a whole spectrum of responses.
Some, of course are a response to the type of deliver: varying from easy, short labor vrs long, traumatic vrs newborn’s responses depressed due to being recipients of drugs for maternal pain relief, vrs those that had oxygen issues during labor and delivery. But generally, for those rough deliveries, these are temporary adaptive responses and the newborns innate personality shortly becomes apparent.
Differing Personality Types
From the moment of birth, normal delivery and Cesarian section deliveries, newborns show a range of responses that are part of their own personal patterns. It’s easily recognizable at birth; how does the newborn respond to stimulation, to change, to touch, to comforting measures, to voice, etc. He recognizes mother, and father, in the delivery suite, illustrated by the quiet, calm responses when parents interact with the newborn, who “tunes in”.
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton wrote a book, in the early 1970’s that looked at how newborn’s communicate with us, as well as identifying newborn temperament that are all within the normal range of development. He moved beyond the “sick” or premature newborn, to what the normal newborn brought to the table.
Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development Dr.T.Berry Brazelton Harvard Medical School
While babies may not speak their first word for a year, they are born ready to communicate with a rich vocabulary of body movements, cries and visual responses: all part of the complex language of infant behavior.
He identified three major personality groups he called Quiet, Average, Active Baby.
Brazelton was able to identify ways that mother’s could interpret their newborns behavior patterns and work with them. So yes, many things are innate, part of our genetic backup. It turns out that being able to “hear” our newborns and respond to their needs influences the way they interact with the world around them. (To learn more about the specifics of the process check out this webpage: Brazelton Assessment ).
Getting back to the Marshmallow Experiment; if a newborn or toddler, is raised in a world where their needs are heard and met fairly consistently then they build a picture of a world that is dependable.
The Marshmallow Experiment, with a Twist, at the University of Rochester; divided the children into two groups.
- The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. i.e. promises were made but not kept.
- The second group was exposed to a series of promises that were made and consistently kept.
Each group was learning something about the world around them.
The first group had no reason to build trust. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” would be an apt expression for that group. If your world is constantly changing and unreliable… you tend to live for the moment.
The second group was learning two important things: waiting can be worth it, and, I have the ability to wait; in fact they would wait up to 4 times longer than the first group! Impressive. Especially given that it only took a few “reliable experiences” to influence their behavior.
As mothers and fathers we have an enormous effect on the world our children experience. If we build a framework that is caring and consistent, then our children find it dependable.
In an experiment: when a newborn cries are answered within 3 – 5 minutes, they quickly settle. That same newborn if left to cry for 10 minutes, so that they are not ‘spoiled’, are unable to settle for over 30 minutes. Babies do not get spoiled, they only know their needs are answered, or not. But once they are “out of sorts” (i.e. abandoned) it takes much longer for them to calm back down when their needs are attended to.
Responding & nurturing our children works toward building healthy adults, as we create a dependable world as much as is possible, from which to reach out and deal with a world full of experiences. Over time, as our experiences and awareness expands we are able to tolerate more “ambiguity” in our world and work toward the goals we have set.
Incredible Value of Parenting
I often think, that we don’t realize just how important our young mothers and fathers are, in the development of their children. It’s not enough to “birth” the child, feed, cloth, & educate. Not if we want them to successfully navigate the future world. Here is 3 min video on how dependent the child is to social interaction with mom: Mother/child interaction
The biggest complaint that we heard voiced, when working with “street kids” (those who had left home, and were roaming the country)… was the sense that they had been abandoned by their parents to the TV, the video games, to someone else, while their parent’s focused on their careers. (NOT my statement, but what I heard from them). Or parents just were too tired to interact with them, when they did come home from work.
Few (uh, as in none) had been taught life-skills (cooking, mechanics, gardening, sewing, etc). This was true of most of our farm interns, as well. (Usually from stable families and educated.) They lived a life of either processed foods out of a box/bag or fast foods. (In the ’70’s only 2% of meals were out of the home; today over 50-70%).
I worked hard to get my nursing degree and to work in Maternal-Child nursing. I will say that we tried to make it a point that at least one parent was home most of the time, and that I worked only 3 days a week for most of my nursing career. I felt like 4 days a week, life revolved around work but working 3 days a week allowed life to revolve around family. This is NOT a choice most people have, though.
I ended up dropping my nursing program with my 2nd child. I delivered her in the middle of my semester on Maternal-Child Nursing (with lectures on how important the maternal connection was in the first two years of life). The dichotomy was crushing. Coming home from a lecture to a newborn that I had abandoned for school (a choice I had the luxury of making) was more than I could emotionally deal with. My first responsibility, if within my power to do so, was to the child. It’s not always an easy choice, it was a high price to pay. It took me years to get my nursing degree because of the detour.
Just before the housing crash, when we put our 10 year project of a remodeled home (we were all involved in the building process) on the market, the kids were devastated (not little kids but young adults, college & senior in high school).
We had all poured heart and soul into creating a home that worked for us. All I had to say to them was, “would you rather have dad home/retire or he continues to work full-time ?” They opted for having dad there & getting to live life, in lieu of having “things” (possessions that posses us, I guess).
Real happiness is not things, of course, but it is meaningful work and relationships, after all. It felt good to see the choices the young adults opted for.
The take home message for me, from “The Marshmallow Study, with a Twist”, was how important our interactions are, with little ones. To be consistent, to follow through on our word, and to nurture them creates a world they can trust. That trust factor allows them to look past grabbing the immediate satisfaction, building the capacity to work toward longer range goals. Your interactions with preschoolers is more significant than you might think!
With a Twist: