The Biscuit Test


The Biscuit Test

I ran an experiment with the boys, last week. I like to see what data can do for me. I use it to make decisions in all other areas of my life, and with this parenting task being so significant, I need data in spades. For research and training purposes. And before I could formulate a strategy for teaching my children to self-regulate, I needed to know my starting points. I needed data.

The experiment was an adaptation of ‘The Marshmallow Test’—the Stanford marshmallow experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel.

Timmy (now 4) and Daniel (still 2) asked for morning tea, so I got them to sit at the table for “a self-control game.” I sat there too, holding our ‘Nom Jar’ of biscuits temptingly displaying its wares through the glass sides, and the digital kitchen timer.

I took a couple of biscuits out, and held one in each hand.

“I’m going to put one biscuit in front of each of you,” I said. The boys paid rapt attention. “You may eat this biscuit now, or, if you wait for five minutes, you may have two biscuits.”

I put the digital timer on the tabletop, already primed at five minutes.

“Okay?” I checked that they understood the game rules. They nodded, but I reiterated anyway, “One biscuit now, or two biscuits in five minutes.”

I pressed Start.

Both boys gripped the table edges.

I expected Daniel to break, early. He’s shown almost no self-control, before, to the point where it seems he just won’t learn to leave a thing alone. If he wants to do  something or go somewhere forbidden, in any given moment, then he does it. There’s no way he’d wait five whole minutes with a biscuit sitting right in front of him, I calculated.

After only a few seconds, they started grinning at each other. Stakes were high. Excitement palpable.

My first surprise was that Daniel wasn’t eating his biscuit. My second was that, if Timmy so much as looked like he might be moving for his own biscuit, Daniel would throw his arms out to the side, like a traffic cop, yelling, “Wait! Wait!”

I was interested to see if they’d have different coping techniques.

They did.

Timmy distracted himself by not looking at his biscuit at all. He inspected the timer, instead.

Daniel was looking at the rest of the biscuits, in the jar. Was this some form of self-motivation? Was he focusing on what he’ll get if he waits the full five minutes? Or was it as simple as his being more enthralled by a pile of biscuits in a clear glass jar, than by the single one on the table in front of him?

They weren’t gripping the table, now. Timmy had leaned well over it, to get close to the timer. His biscuit wasn’t even in his frame of vision anymore, smothered somewhere under his chest.

Daniel’s palms were flat on the table, either side of his biscuit. Occasionally he’d look up at me and say, “Just wait, okay? Just wait. Yes, not eat biscuit.” Perhaps reminding himself. But the hands edged closer.

At two minutes and thirty seconds remaining, and shocked that Daniel was still playing, I said, “You’re halfway there, boys. Well done. Really good self-control. Remember to wait for the beeps if you want another biscuit.”

Timmy still watched the timer. He didn’t want to sit by his biscuit anymore. He crawled onto my lap instead, and shoved his face up close to the lowering numbers.

Daniel was softly stroking the edges of his biscuit, now. It occurred to me that, in the original Marshmallow Test this was based on, the children weren’t allowed to touch their temptation either. But I hadn’t stipulated that, and it wouldn’t be fair to introduce new rules now, when the game was already in play. I’d just have to add the restriction next time. For now, I let him stroke his biscuit.

He watched me. I watched him. He watched me watching him. The side of his mouth quirked upwards. His hands moved away. A short distance.

Then back.

Then he picked up his biscuit.

I looked at the time. A minute left.

He lifted the biscuit to his mouth, lips still closed, watching me to see what I’d do.

I did nothing. Inside, I was clamouring, “Please! Don’t! You got this far! Just a little longer!” But this was an experiment. If he ate his biscuit before five minutes was up, the experiment wasn’t failed. It was just data. And I wanted data.

“No, Daniel, don’t eat it!” cried Timmy.

Daniel’s biscuit remained at his mouth.

“Daniel!” Timmy repeated, desperately.

“He’s not eating it, yet,” I said to him.

And he wasn’t. Daniel was gently stroking his lower lip with it, feeling its soft wheaten caress, moving from one lip corner to the other.

He moved the biscuit to his top lip, and repeated the motion.

His lips parted, and he held the biscuit in front of them. He moved it closer. Then stilled. It was now only a few millimetres away.

I watched.

Timmy watched.

Nobody made a sound.

His mouth opened subtly wider, and the biscuit moved in. It was past his lips now, but still not touching anything.


Daniel bit.

Timmy blinked.

I laughed.

So, they both got their two biscuits. But I think I need to adjust variables, next time. Perhaps adjust the time. Or have myself leave the room. (I’ll need surreptitious surveillance in place, if doing this.)

Certainly, I’ll be more specific about restrictions.


(3) Comments

  • Leanne
    11 Jun 2016

    Thanks for a beautiful and delightful story. I assume you got authorisation from the appropriate ethics committee for human experiments. 🙂

    • Eve
      11 Jun 2016

      Um…sure. I mean, absolutely.

  • Deborah Makarios
    11 Jun 2016

    Ah, biscuit data – the yummiest kind. Glad to hear the little cuzzies are showing such fibrous character so early!

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