African farmers’ kids conquer the marshmallow test

Cultural parenting styles shape how children manage self-control

kid looking at marshmallow

WAIT FOR IT  A 4-year-old boy from a Nso farming community in Cameroon faces down a puff-puff pastry while waiting for a second treat during a battle of self-control known as the marshmallow test.

Culture and Development Lab/Osnabrück Univ.

Children of Nso farmers in Cameroon know how to master the marshmallow test, which has tempted away the self-control of Western kids for decades.

In a direct comparison on this delayed gratification task, Cameroonian youngsters leave middle-class German children in the dust when challenged to resist a reachable treat while waiting for another goodie, a new study finds.

Of 76 Nso 4-year-olds, 53, or nearly 70 percent, waited 10 minutes for a second treat — a small local pastry called a puff-puff — without eating the puff-puff placed on a table in front of them, say psychologist Bettina Lamm of Osnabrück University in Germany and colleagues.

Only 35 of 125 German 4-year-olds, or 28 percent, successfully waited for their choice of a second lollipop or chocolate bar.

The study, which is the first to administer the marshmallow test to non-Western kids, shows that cultural styles of child raising can dramatically shift how self-control develops, Lamm’s team contends online June 6 in Child Development.

“The disparity between German and Nso cultures on the marshmallow test is huge,” says psychologist Ozlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley. She concurs that parenting practices among Nso farmers may at least partly boost children’s ability to delay gratification.

Marshmallow tests conducted over the past 50 years have found that, as in the new study, a minority of children in Western countries manage to wait for a second treat without munching the first one (SN: 11/15/14, p. 28). And kids best able to wait out the test display academic and social advantages decades later (SN: 10/8/11, p. 12).

A Western cultural emphasis on raising children to be independent and to express what they want and how they feel presents challenges to self-control, Lamm says. Delaying a reward, as in the marshmallow test, stirs a frustrating feeling of powerlessness, her team proposes.

The kids in the new study were part of a long-term study of cultural differences in memory and learning. Age-appropriate assessments occurred three times during the kids’ first year of life and at ages 3 and 4. Only 4-year-olds took the marshmallow test. Among 63 of the German youngsters videotaped in play sessions with their mothers at age 9 months, those whose mothers were most lenient in letting them determine what to do displayed the least patience on the marshmallow test at age 4, the researchers say.

Researchers have long argued that “authoritative parenting,” marked by giving children freedom within specific limits, fosters self-control needed for academic and social success (SN: 8/19/89, p. 117). German kids who waited for a second treat had mothers who dealt with them authoritatively as 9-month-olds, Lamm says.

Nso mothers typically had an authoritative parenting style, keeping their kids close and training them to keep emotions in check and respect their elders, especially those high in a community’s pecking order. For 57 Nso kids recorded in play with their mothers at age 9 months, mothers consistently took the lead in organizing play activities.

Nso children’s self-control grew out of their mothers’ authoritarian, controlling parenting style, Lamm suspects.

Children also displayed cultural differences in how they tried to resist temptation during the marshmallow test. German kids tried to distract themselves while waiting for a second treat by moving about, turning around, singing, talking and even leaving the room. Nso youngsters waiting for a second treat exhibited little emotion and remained largely still. Eight of them fell asleep in their chairs.

Some previously tested Western children have rested their heads on the table and taken naps as a tactic to ignore available treats. But Nso kids appeared to zonk out spontaneously, slumping over in their chairs, Lamm says.

As a result of authoritarian parenting practices, Nso kids either squelch negative emotions or experience negative emotions in a different, more controllable way than Western peers do, she proposes.

Ayduk notes that it’s not clear whether Nso youngsters truly had greater self-control or if, true to farming community standards, they simply obeyed adults who asked them to wait for a second puff-puff, Ayduk adds.

While Nso values and parenting techniques generally characterize small-scale farming populations, especially in Africa, hunter-gatherers are another story, says anthropologist Barry Hewlett of Washington State University in Vancouver. Traditional hunter-gatherer groups value individual freedom and consider everyone to be relatively equal, regardless of age. Parents usually don’t tell their kids what to do, and children show little deference to parents and elders.

No hunter-gatherer kids have taken the marshmallow test. Hewlett expects most would scarf an available treat right away.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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