f the possible child heroes for our times, young people with epic levels of the traits we valorize, the strongest contender has got to be the kid in the marshmallow study. Social scientists are so sick of the story that some threaten suicide if forced to read about him one more time. But to review: The child—or really, nearly one-third of the more than 600 children tested in the late ’60s at Bing Nursery School on the Stanford University campus—sits in a room with a marshmallow. Having been told that if he abstains for 15 minutes he’ll get two marshmallows later, he doesn’t eat it. This kid is a paragon of self-restraint, a savant of delayed gratification. He’ll go on, or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health.
I began to think about the marshmallow kid and how much I wanted my own daughter to be like him one day last fall while I sat in a parent-teacher conference in her second-grade classroom and learned, as many parents do these days, that she needed to work on self-regulation. My daughter is nonconformist by nature, a miniature Sarah Silverman. She’s wildly, transgressively funny and insists on being original even when it causes her pain. The teacher at her private school, a man so hip and unthreatened that he used to keep a boa constrictor named Elvis in his classroom, had noticed she was not gently going along with the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program. “So …” he said, in the most caring, best-practices way, “have you thought about occupational therapy?”