“Wait for the marshmallow” was the theme of one high school salutatorian’s presentation to her classmates Sunday during commencement exercises at Seaman High School in Topeka. The speech’s title is related to a Stanford University research study on kids’ self-control — or lack thereof — and how that behavioral skill can be a strong predictor of success in other aspects of people’s lives.

SHS graduating senior Caroline Kabus said her father used that expression so often to her that she decided to learn more about its meaning. Upon learning about the will power and self-control behavior behind the “wait for the marshmallow” concept, as well as its apparent reflection on a person’s ability to delay gratification and accomplish more, she decided it was worth sharing with her classmates.

The study by Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, essentially gave preschool-age children an option to eat a treat, which included one marshmallow, or else wait some unknown length of time while the researcher left the room to eat it and then be rewarded with two marshmallows instead. A third option was for children to ring a bell so the researcher would immediately return to the room so the child could eat the treat but then forfeit the second helping of the treat. Only 30 percent of the children were able to delay their gratification and earn the second treat.

Those children who were able to avoid the eating temptation initially, as profiled in the New Yorker magazine, did so by distracting themselves from the desired object. Whether they looked away, busied themselves with other activities or simply sang a song to themselves, they effectively forestalled eating the treat and delayed their gratification. That skillset played out as a strength in other ways in the children’s lives as they grew into adulthood, too.

Those who were able to wait to eat their marshmallows had significantly higher SAT scores and didn’t experience the behavioral problems, coping skills challenges, trouble maintaining friendships, trouble paying attention and general stress experienced by their counterparts who weren’t able to wait to eat their treat.

This case perhaps offers some parallels with the economic meltdown and other challenges with excess credit being given too freely for people to make purchases they couldn’t afford. Perhaps the best lesson parents can teach their children is self-discipline and delayed gratification. Those skills foster a greater ability to plan, set goals and ultimately achieve goals. Finding ways to outsmart our desires is paramount and certainly can be taught. Patience is a virtue and important character trait. It is a trait we need to practice ourselves, as well as teach to others, so we all can better learn to not eat the marshmallow.

 — Jeanny Sharp, editor and publisher