Science Says Kids Today May Be More Patient Than Past Generations (Yes, Really)

The first word that comes to mind when you think of toddlers and young children is probably not "patient." Increased technology use has led many to believe that they are even less willing to wait than ever before, but a recent study may change that. By revisiting the classic "marshmallow test," researchers determined that kids today may be more patient than those of past generations.

If you're not familiar with the "marshmallow test," here's the gist of it. Researchers give little kids the option of eating a single snack, such as a marshmallow, immediately, or waiting two minutes and getting to eat two of them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the original test was given about 50 years ago, the majority of preschool aged children opted to enjoy their single sweet treat rather than wait it out for double the reward. After the original test in the '60s, the same setup was repeated in the following decades with surprising results.

A report recently published by the American Psychological Association found that children today are more capable of delaying gratification for the added reward. University of Minnesota psychologist and lead researcher in the study Dr. Stephanie M. Carlson said, according to Science Daily, "Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today's kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s."

The results of the APA's study rang true even after variables such as changes in methodology, setting or geography, as well as the age, sex, or socioeconomic status of the participants, according to the LA Times. Additionally, none of the participants were on medications that could impact their willingness to wait, such as those to treat ADHD.

Carlson's findings would probably surprise the 358 adults surveyed by her team of researchers. 72 percent of those surveyed stated that they thought children today would wait an even shorter amount of time, while 75 percent expected children today to have less self-control, according to Newsweek. After looking at results from the original test, as well as those conducted in the 1980s and early 2000s, the team found that:

... kids who participated in their studies in the 2000s waited an average of two minutes longer (during a 10-minute period) than those from the 1960s, and one minute longer than those tested in the 1980s.

Increased technology usage may be what has led many to believe that kids today would be less likely to delay gratification. And it is true that kids are using more tech than ever before. A 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that children aged 8 to 10 spend more than seven hours a day with technology. Additionally, Common Sense Media reported that in 2017, 38 percent of kids younger than 2 have used a mobile device already. But, as Carlson explained to Science Daily, "This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today's children have less self-control than previous generations."

As for why the most recent batch of kids lasted longer, Carlson and her team offered a few possible explanations: for one, IQ scores scores have increased throughout the years, which researchers tied to changes in technology, according to Science Daily. Second, kids now are showing increased abstract thought, Carlson said:

We believe that increases in abstract thought, along with rising preschool enrollment, changes in parenting and, paradoxically, cognitive skills associated with screen technologies, may be contributing to generational improvements in the ability to delay gratification.

You may be wondering why anyone even cares that kids can wait longer for the marshmallows, and I don't blame you. But delayed gratification is a great skill for kids to have. A 1989 study that was published in Science magazine found that 4-year-olds who could delay gratification "developed into more cognitively and socially competent adolescents, achieving higher scholastic performance and coping better with frustration and stress." On a more immediate level, what parent wouldn't love for their child to be OK with hearing "later," or "not right now," when they ask for something?

These findings are encouraging for parents like myself who have to cope with worries about impatience in little ones. Considering the benefits of delayed gratification and its apparent increase in children, there is a lot to be hopeful about.