It was a summer night that should have been the very picture of calm. Instead, I was holding onto my lawn chair with a white-knuckled grip.
My eight-year-old daughter’s marshmallow was engulfed in flames. She leapt to her feet and screamed, and every fiber of my being wanted to snatch the flaming stick from her fingers.
I made a split-second decision and concluded that she was not in any real danger. If I swooped in to rescue her, I would extinguish the problem immediately—and earn some points with my kid to boot. Yet by solving the problem for her, I would also be letting her know that I didn’t think she had the tools to deal with it on her own.
So in a calm, self-assured voice, I said, “You’ve got this.”
In her book The Gift of Failure, educator Jessica Lahey writes that it’s “hard to watch, and it’s even harder not to jump in when we see our kids frustrated or upset.” Lahey adds: “The catch is that what feels good to us isn’t always what is good for our children. We are not used to putting off what feels right and good for us in the short term in order to do what is right and good for our children in the long term.”
Still aflame, the marshmallow began its slow, Icarus-like death descent down the stick. I watched anxiously as my daughter huffed and puffed; her lungs were no match for the sinking, gooey mass. I was about to intervene when she leveled her stick to halt gravity’s pull, and then, my 10-year-old son advised: “Blow harder!” And she did.
As the smoke cleared, my daughter gazed at her charred marshmallow, shrugged, and took a bite. “Yummy!” she grinned, twirling the stick. She grabbed a second marshmallow and turned back to the fire.
I still hadn’t moved from my chair—yet in my stillness, I realized that my choice not to react to my daughter’s mishap created the condition for her to learn and grow from it. In order to allow her to square off against her fear, I had to square off against my instinct and desire to protect her. I had to sit with my own anxiety and not act on it. Just because she was scared did not mean she needed my protection. If I stepped in, it would be about my needs, not hers. And in that moment when my daughter reached for the second marshmallow, my personal and professional worlds collided.
In the famous “marshmallow test” of the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel gave young children a choice: eat one marshmallow now, or wait for the adult’s return and get two marshmallows. Two out of three kids were unable to delay gratification. Yet those who did, Mischel found when he evaluated them decades later, performed better academically, professionally, and personally. To develop self-control, researchers concluded, kids needed an environment “in which self-imposed delay is encouraged and modeled.”
Modeled—ay, there’s the rub. If we are being honest, we spend more time encouraging kids to exhibit self-control than we do modeling it ourselves. We’re often too worried, distracted, or pressed for time to think straight. As Lahey points out, “when we are all hopped up on adrenaline and cortisol, our brains can’t distinguish between genuine, mortal threats…and the manageable threat.”
In a culture where parenting has become a competitive sport, speed the only mode, and success the only acceptable outcome, we lose our ability to distinguish between true emergencies, everyday snags, and the accidents and failures in between. We perceive even productive struggle in our kids as a full-blown threat to be eliminated. Reacting thus, we may win the battle—for example, our child gets an A on the test but doesn’t really understand the material—but we ultimately lose the very war we fight presumably so that our children can grow into healthy, happy, and autonomous adults with the ability to handle failures without our intervention.
Although this hyper-competitive, fast-paced environment shows no signs of changing, our response to it can. We can start by committing to a practice of self-awareness and genuine presence when interacting with children and adults alike. We can start by sitting with—rather than acting on—as a first response to stress. We can start by viewing “manageable threats” as the sweet spot for learning and growth, and know that this requires us to stop managing those threats for our children.
I recently asked my kids what they learned that night around the fire. My son replied, “I realized that, if I know something that could be helpful, I should say something.” My daughter said, “I realized that I can handle some scary things by myself, and that made me feel proud.”
When I took one step back, my kids took two steps forward: my son toward empathy and service to others, my daughter toward confidence and autonomy. I want this for my kids. I want this for all of our kids. To make this vision a reality, we need to put off our short-term gratification to make way for our kids’ long-term autonomy. We need to parent for two marshmallows tomorrow rather than one marshmallow today. The real marshmallow test? It’s for adults, not for kids.