Would Your Campers Pass the Marshmallow Challenge?

Imagine sitting around a campfire while roasting marshmallows, and instead of everyone eating the marshmallow immediately, all the campers wait until everyone is ready. What is going on? Campers are learning self-control and grit. But, how did they do it?

Dr. Walter Mischel in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control discusses his famous marshmallow test and the value of self-control. In his original test, conducted nearly 50 years ago, preschoolers were given a choice, one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. The experimenter then left the preschoolers alone in a room for 15 minutes to decide what to do. Dr. Mischel discovered that the preschoolers who were able to wait went on to have better outcomes later in life (e.g., higher SAT scores, more advanced degrees, better able to cope with stress).

But what helped some kids wait while others could not? By activating cool, goal-oriented thoughts such as not looking at the marshmallow, putting the marshmallow in a picture frame, imagining the marshmallow was something non-desirable or focusing on the end goal (two marshmallows instead of one), the preschoolers were more successful at waiting. In contrast, when preschoolers stared at the marshmallow, smelled the marshmallow, or thought about how yummy it would be to eat it, they had more trouble waiting.

Dr. Mischel discovered that although for some kids it is genetically easier to wait than for others, you can teach these self-control strategies. So how can you encourage self-control, grit, and resilience in yourself and your campers?

1. We need to be gritty about our kids being gritty. As youth professionals, we should make it okay for children to face challenges because that is where learning takes place. At camp, we are in unique position to do just that. Camp is all about trying and taking risks as opposed to winning or being right. It is our job to help children become comfortable with the struggle so that they see it as just a normal part of learning.

2. We need to encourage a growth mindset. How do we do that? Help your campers see that when a challenge arises, there is always an opportunity for growth, change, and evolution. Whether it be sailing, beading, or making a new friend, our abilities are not fixed. Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, describes the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset means that an individual believes he or she has a set amount, or a fixed amount of talents and abilities. Individuals with a fixed mindset often go through life avoiding challenges and failure. They don’t apply themselves. Why should they? Their talents are fixed. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that their ability to learn is not fixed, but can change with effort. Failure is not seen as a permanent condition, but rather one from which to grow. So next time you are at the lake, in arts and crafts, or in the bunk and a challenge emerges, encourage a “growth mindset.”

3. WOOP it out. Huh? Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen, the originator of WOOP, discusses this principle in her recent book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. So how does WOOP work?

W = Wish

O = Outcome

O = Obstacles

P = Plan (if-then)

The idea is that when one tries to increase self-control and/or develop a new habit, one should first imagine what it would feel like to have this wish (w) and outcome (o) occur. But then, just as important, one should imagine what the obstacles (o) are that prevent one’s wish and outcome from occurring. Lastly, one needs to make an if-then plan (p) for this obstacle. For example, one camper I worked with wanted to be less upset when losing at a game (wish). He imagined that if he were less upset, he would enjoy the game more, have more fun, and have an overall better time at sports and camp in general (outcome). However, he often became overwhelmed and angry when losing and that releasing that anger made him feel good in the moment (obstacle). His plan then was, if I find myself getting too angry then I will remind myself of the WHOLE PICTURE, and that although I may feel good in the moment by getting mad, getting upset does not feel good in the long-term (plan).

4. Wait “10.” I have a bracelet that says, “Wait 10.” The bracelet (an if-then plan) reminds me to wait 10 minutes before making any decision that my immediate gratification brain thinks is a good idea (e.g., eating carbs after 9 p.m.). By waiting 10, I have found that I often, although not always, make better choices (drinking tea, instead of eating donuts). I have made similar bracelets with the children with whom I work (e.g., wait 10 before calling out or acting silly). By having a cooling-down period, the children have been more successful in tapping into their long-term as opposed to their short-term selves.

The point is not to be a robot who never engages in fun activities or who doesn’t ever eat marshmallows, but instead to have ourselves, and our children, be in charge of our fate, instead of having the short-term, hedonistic part of the brain take over.

In summary, we need to encourage our children to perceive challenges as setbacks to overcome and failures as learning opportunities. Lastly, we need to lead by example, share our own gritty times, and remind our children that what is often most meaningful comes with work and effort. If your campers follow these tenets, they too can pass the marshmallow challenge. Enjoy those campfires and have fun at camp!

Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman is a child psychologist, wife, and mother. Please see my website (drbaruchfeldman.com) and follow me at twitter at carenfeldman@carenfeldman. Staff training videos by Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman are also available at expertonlinetraining.com. To book a workshop, please visit my website - DrBaruchFeldman.com.