Teaching Discipline: The Sweetness of Delayed Gratification

· October 26, 2015

Have you ever heard of the Marshmallow Experiment? This interesting study was conducted in the 1960s and 70s at Stanford University by psychology Walter Mischel. It involves presenting a 5-year-old child with a reward (usually a marshmallow or other treat), and telling the child that he or she can either eat the treat immediately, or, wait while the tester steps out of the room for a short time, and upon the tester’s return the child would receive a double portion of the treat.

This simple test involving a reward in exchange for effort is a good way to measure the child’s discipline, effort, perseverance, patience, etc. Children that were given the Marshmallow Test at 5 years old and followed during the next 16 years of their academic life have been observed demonstrating interesting patterns of behavior.


The children who ate the candies before the proctor returned to the room generally had worse academic results, sometimes even dropping out of school before graduation, compared to the children who patiently waited for the adult to return before eating. According to follow up studies, the Marshmallow test can provide better indication of future academic success than many standardized tests and traditional intelligence tests.

How can we teach our children to be more disciplined?

Learning to be responsible and disciplined helps us to gradually become more independent, emotionally stable, and, therefore, more mature.

  1. Instill the value of discipline from birth. Put them down for naps/bedtime and feed them at defined times during the day and night. It is also very important to talk to them often from the time they are born to encourage confidence.
  2. Establish defined house rules. Children need to know from a young age that there are rules that need to be followed. It is very important they begin to recognize that life has limits. This does not mean that there are no special days – such as their birthday, Christmas, a weekend at their grandparents’ house – when the rules can be bent a little.
  3. Give them age-appropriate responsiblities. Have them pick up their toys, help clear the table, clean the house, etc.
  4. Use positive reinforcement. A child should always receive positive encouragement, never negative. For example: “I know you are good and that you will do the right thing.
  5. Establish a good line of communication with your child. They should feel that they can count on you to tell them what you want and how well they did one thing or another. It is also good to learn to negotiate with your child so they neither feel that they can do whatever they want nor feel that they are living under a permanent dictatorship. It will strengthen their self-esteem and encourage them to keep doing the right thing by making decisions responsibly and in consensus with others.
  6. Explain to them why. If you explain to them that they should brush their teeth so they do not get cavities, or wear their seatbelt so they do not get hurt in case of an accident, they will understand the situation much better and understand that there are reasons behind the things we do, not just a “because I said so.”
  7. Teach by example. There is no better way to teach them but by example. Walk the walk instead of just preaching to them and your word will be that much more credible to them, making them more likely to listen and follow.

Watch a video of the Marshmallow Test in action.