Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel *****

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel opens with the interesting observation that if a preschooler can wait 20 minutes for two marshmallows instead of grabbing one marshmallow now, psychologists can predict more success in life (by almost any measure) decades later.

This observation is the basis of this excellent parenting manual based on the latest research.  Fortunately, evolution moves very slowly and human nature has changed very little in the last hundred (or thousand for that matter) years, so this advice is compatible with previous research-based parenting books. The one my wife and I used decades ago offers similar advice with reference to different research: Children: The Challenge - now celebrating its golden anniversary, though still readily available in reprint.

I can highly recommend Mischel's book for its sound advice and up-to-date review of the current research. The title not withstanding, this book offers a broad survey of current research. If parents want to focus their parenting, either of these boos will provide an excellent basis for the personal style that parents must synthesize to provide a consistent and supportive environment for their children.

With the recent progress in neurobiology and the results of many new longitudinal studies, does this research based on the Marshmallow Test offer unique new insights into child development?

Recall the story of the blind men and the elephant -- so many different answers (like a snake, wall, tree trunk, ...) -- all partial and all correct. Parenting is the same. The child never changes, but the blind observers see many differences.

Fortunately, in the case of children, correlation gives us a hint to the underlying truths. Many different experiments give the same results. Methods that focus on teaching academic skills, reducing stress, improving nutrition, setting goals, improving self-worth, increasing need for achievement, aiding social skills, etc. all can be shown to deliver positive results. Looking at any of these individually will show positive correlation with a wide variety of positive outcomes.

So once again the deductive trap of correlation rears its ugly head. Each correlation is just part of a larger story. However, fortunately for parents, they do not need to see the full picture, they only need an approach that works. Ignoring the hype, this book delivers advice that works.

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