Does early self-control determine a child’s future success?

Posted on August, 2020

Can you ensure future success for your child?

Can a child learn future success? How much is dependent on self-control? If so, can self-control be taught? Can early self-control determine a child’s future success?


In the early 1970s, Stanford University Professor Walter Mischel conducted the famous Marshmallow experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to see when delayed gratification occurs in children. It was a set of 3 experiments on children aged from 3 1/2 years to 5 1/2 years old. The results were opposite to the predicted results. The experiment was filmed, and as you would expect, some of the footage is very entertaining.

The Marshmallow experiment was one of a set of 3 experiments carried out. Experiment 1 had 50 children who were offered a toy as a prize. In experiment 2, the children were offered marshmallows or some other treat. Experiment 3 consisted of 16 children who were offered the same as in 1 and 2 but they could not see the prize.

The Children of Today

Young children are said to be impulsive and to live in the present moment. They are criticised for having no concept of the future, let alone future success. To add insult to injury, children are said to grow up with a sense of entitlement and the need for instant reward. There is the idea that the more technology-reliant a child is, the shorter the attention span.

If we extend this to future academic success, does it mean that this will lead to poorer grades in school?

The Marshmallow Experiment

When I read that The Marshmallow Experiment was replicated yet again, it got me thinking about why this is.

The Marshmallow experiment is one of the most famous social science experiments. A Stanford University professor carried out this experiment in the 1970s.

The assistant offered 32 young children (individually) a marshmallow to immediately consume or 2 marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. The results were then linked to educational attainment, higher SATs scores and even lower BMI. In other words, the children who were able to wait for the 2 marshmallows generally did better in later life.

This would suggest that behaviours such as self-control cannot be taught. If you extend that to education, does it mean that every child is born only with fixed traits in learning?

future success

Marshmallows again!

This experiment has been replicated with some sort of twists over the years. Almost all of them have drawn different conclusions from the original. Many have said the reason for this was Professor Walter Mischel using too small a cohort. Others have said it is due to the lack of diversity in his subjects.

The Marshmallow Experiment was repeated yet again, this time to test results looking at social and economic conditions, and this time, the conclusion is that children from poorer backgrounds fared worse.

Yet in another very similar experiment, Cameroonian children showed that they waited twice as long and complained a lot less.

To my mind that puts the social equality theory into question.

Also, what if the child does not like marshmallows, or they simply think that two marshmallows are not worth the wait, and they may have waited if there were more?

I would also say that this has not taken into account the massive impact of things like social media and the internet. It also does not take into account the differing personalities of each child.

I have now been a tutor for 16 years – you can read more about my experience here. In that time, I have worked with children who had set their goals and were determined to achieve them- whatever it took. I have also worked with children who were simply happy to coast- to their parent’s frustration! Some children are simply not academically inclined!

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As a tutor, I believe that whilst self-control is important, a determination is equally as important, if not more so. This along with guidance and practice is surely the key for any future achievement, academic or otherwise. You can learn more about exploring these potential futures here.


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