Learning Tips

Marshmallow Discussion: Delayed Gratification Shapes Successful Children

Parents have had the experience of children who, when they see a toy they like in a toy shop, won’t leave until they buy it, and even cry and trick to get what they want. There is a psychological concept behind these patterns of behaviour – a lack of “delayed gratification”. Psychological research has proven that the ability to “delay gratification” allows children to better handle temptations and may even make it easier for them to achieve their goals as they grow up!

Doesn’t that sound amazing? No, it’s not. It’s backed up by empirical data and analysis. “Delayed gratification” is the tendency to give up ‘immediate gratification’ for the sake of long-term benefits.

This psychological experiment was conducted by Dr Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the USA in a series of experiments between 1966 and the early 1970s. The experimenter used marshmallows as bait and left the child in the same space with the marshmallows, telling the child before leaving: “If I come back in 15 minutes and you haven’t eaten this marshmallow, I’ll give you one more”.

Of the 600 children who took part in the experiment, a few ate the marshmallows immediately, some ate them after a period of patience, and only a third persisted until the experimenter returned and received two marshmallows.

More interestingly, the experimenters’ observations over the next decade or so showed that 18 years later, in 1988, children who were able to withstand the temptation of the marshmallows were more adaptable, more adventurous, popular, confident and independent during adolescence, and in 1990, follow-up observations showed that children with high delayed gratification scored better on the SAT (American College Admission Test).

The results show that children with high levels of “delayed gratification” are more likely to succeed. This is because in both school and work, there is often no immediate reward for hard work, and it takes time and effort to reap the rewards. Therefore, those who have long-term plans and the self-control to achieve them, rather than “instant gratification”, are more likely to succeed.

Kumon encourages children to keep studying every day, not in large amounts, but in good habits; and to make short- and long-term plans for their learning. All these are conducive to the development of delayed gratification.

What are the specific ways in which the Kumon Method of learning can develop “delayed gratification”? How do the Kumon worksheets and instructions achieve this goal?

1. Cultivating a Sense of Security and Trust

An important prerequisite for children who are able to achieve “delayed gratification” in the marshmallow experiment is that they trust the experimenters to keep their promise to give them a second marshmallow. Imagine that children who do not trust the experimenter will choose to enjoy the marshmallow immediately while the experimenter is away. Therefore, the building of trust and a sense of security is the basis for training delayed gratification.

When children encounter difficulties in learning Kumon, the instructor will communicate with parents and children in a timely manner. For example, they will communicate with parents about their child’s learning at parents’ meeting or when they pick up their child. They will also communicate directly with the child to adjust the learning schedule from time to time and to set the right learning pace for the child.

Gong, who studied the content at senior secondary level in Primary 5, said, “The Kumon instructor would communicate with me after class about the content and progress of the worksheets, and this process gave me a clearer understanding of my own learning level and progress”. The tireless efforts of the Kumon instructors have gradually fostered a sense of trust in them and the education centres among children and parents. This trust is the cornerstone of a child’s continuous progress in learning. It is only when trust is established that the child is convinced that hard work will be rewarded and that the child will be motivated to persevere in learning.

2. Make and Follow Rules

Returning to the example given at the beginning of this article, when a child refuses to leave the toy shop, some parents may say, “Mummy doesn’t have any money with me today, so I can’t buy it. Let’s go home and get the money and come back for more”. However, it is very likely that this statement will not be fulfilled. Once the child thinks, “Mummy is a liar and didn’t keep her promise last time”, it can be very difficult to start delayed gratification training. It is not only the child who needs to follow the rules, but also the parents.

At Kumon, children need to attend the centre regularly and spend more time studying at home. Therefore, it is a joint effort between parents and Kumon instructors to ensure that children learn effectively.

Sarah’s mother, who reached levels beyond six school years in her first year of primary school studying Kumon, shared that “parents need to be clear from the start and let their children know that Kumon is a daily routine”. Once the rules are in place, both parents and children have to take the initiative to follow them, and the child’s persistence in completing homework and the parent’s consistent supervision result in a very powerful learning habit that drives the child to persevere!

Regular and punctual learning at Kumon Education Centre is a rule, and doing Kumon worksheets on time and in the right amount every day is a rule. Kumon believes that once these rules are set and adhered to, they will help children develop good study habits, time management skills, self-learning skills, etc.

3. Improve Self-Control

The delayed gratification that mothers and fathers want their children to achieve is in fact a form of self-control, an ability that requires an internalised drive. Take learning as an example, teachers and parents following their children around and chasing after them is a kind of “external control”, an exterior pressure; once children have the internal drive to pursue knowledge and seek answers by themselves, self-control is developed.

Self-learning is one of the most important features of Kumon, the Kumon worksheets are designed to inspire children’s thinking through examples in small steps, and the Kumon instructors use the briefest of instructional language to guide children to think for themselves as much as possible.

Kumon Maths completer Guo said, “Kumon has made me realise that learning about different things is fun, you get a sense of satisfaction from it and you are more motivated to pursue more knowledge. As long as you have this interest in pursuing knowledge, learning will not be difficult”. Learning Kumon has given him the ability to learn on his own and have fostered a long term interest in the pursuit of knowledge. This ability and interest has given him a constant internal drive to reach higher peaks of knowledge.

The ability to delay gratification is centred on the long term, and the ability to exercise effective self-control in the present can be subdivided into the ability to manage time, to have a regular routine, to plan, and so on. All of these skills can be acquired through Kumon learning.

On the one hand, Kumon sets long-term plans for children and breaks them down into small, practical plans, so that children do not focus on short-term pleasures and fail to “delay gratification”; on the other hand, Kumon requires parents and children to work together to set “Kumon time” (a fixed amount of time to study Kumon each day), which effectively helps children to develop the habit of completing worksheets at regular intervals every day.

The founder of the Kumon method of learning, Toru Kumon, once said, “Although Kumon has actually achieved unprecedented results in developing academic skills and improving grades, which are also very important, the real value of Kumon lies in developing the attitude and habit of ‘self-learning'”. The goal of Kumon is to equip children with the ability to learn and study on their own for a lifetime.

A marshmallow has been the cause of discussion for decades, and it should not end with astonishment or regret. The delayed gratification skills play a role throughout a child’s life, and if such skills can be developed in the course of learning, it is the best of both worlds. The Kumon Method is indeed such an option.