Just eat the damn marshmallow

In their zeal to produce self-regulating, calm, marshmallow-postponing students, schools are failing non-conformists, writes Elizabeth Weil in The New Republic. Do we want a generation of Stepford Kids?

In the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late ’60s, nursery school kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they’d get two marshmallows later. One third were able to defer gratification. The tots with self-control went on, “or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health,” Weil writes.

Her daughter is not a marshmallow kid. In second grade at a private school, she resisted “the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.” The teacher didn’t discipline her. He recommended occupational therapy.  Teachers don’t punish, Weil writes. They “pathologize.”

She met a Seattle mother whose son was referred for testing because he had trouble sitting crossed-legged. The mother “learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing.”

Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

Punishing students for misbehavior has been “problematic” for teachers since the 1975 Goss decision, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. The Supreme Court found that schoolchildren  have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

Instead of controlling students through rewards and punishments, teachers are supposed to get students to control themselves. Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches self-regulation to produce a “good student, citizen, and worker” who won’t use drugs, fight, bully or drop out.

However, there’s no evidence SEL improves academic achievement, Weil writes. Meanwhile, as small children are expected to show more self-control, diagnoses of attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are soaring.

When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The push for self-regulation coincides with a sharp decline in measures of independent thinking, Weil writes.

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984.

Suppressing feelings is mentally draining, according to Stanford Professor James Gross, author of the Handbook of Emotional Regulation.

The federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is pushing its model for social-emotional learning, pre-empting other ideas, some educators complain.

Self-regulation and “grit” may be “lost in translation” in the classroom, writes Sarah Sparks on Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Unintended consequences? How surprising.

  2. My kids went to a half-day, part-time church preschool. One year, my son had a new teacher for part of the year. She implemented a reward system with weekly prizes and Xs that stayed beside your name, so that if you misbehaved on Monday you looked at it all week, knowing that you couldn’t get a prize. She thought that my kid was great – he never got in trouble and always got a prize. But, he came home and had meltdowns daily from worrying about getting an X and holding it all in.

    When the teacher had to move unexpectedly at mid-year, they brought in a teacher who would do a time-out for rule-breaking (rudeness, pushing, etc) but, after the time-out, moved on and ‘forgot it’. The change in behavior was amazing. Although I would guess that my son occasionally sat in time-out for wrestling, he wasn’t worried about it and was a happy kid at home. While we need to teach little kids to self-regulate and work towards long-term goals, I’m not sure that it works the way we, as adults, would anticipate.

  3. Weil is making a valid point, although I’m not sure when schools (at least non-Waldorf schools and Montessori schools) were ever that friendly to non-compliant kids.

    And at the same time, there has to be a balance. School is a group setting, and children either have to arrive at school with some level of self-control and self-regulation (which are not the same thing), or they have to learn those skills in the early years of school. Maybe not perfectly, but enough so that productive activity can take place in classrooms without chaos and disruptions. One child leaving her/his seat randomly is not a big deal; twenty five ten-year olds who leave their seats randomly — as opposed to for some reason — is paralyzing.

  4. Maybe relevant, or maybe just worth a smile: The title of this post took me back to my undergraduate days. We were discussing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and someone blurted out, “Just eat the damn peach!”

  5. Yet enforced, almost bullying cheerfulness dominates our culture. In her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she found the wildly optimistic pink-ribbon culture surrounding the condition nearly as daunting as the disease itself. It did not allow her to express fear, anger, worry—all perfectly normal responses to a potentially life-threatening diagnosis. Instead she was told over and over that cancer was her chance to grow spiritually, to embrace life, to find God. The message forced on her was “What does not destroy you, [to paraphrase Nietzsche] makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.” So put on a happy face.