The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification

It would appear that, unbeknownst to me, I am in the midst of my own quasi-Marshmallow Experiment. Before I continue, I should just caveat:

  • this experiment with only three participants is probably too small to be considered scientifically sound;
  • there is no ‘control’ with which to compare results from the three participants;
  • the experiment is being conducted on rather an ad hoc basis, in that it was stumbled on and not preceded by a clear methodology.

With this in mind, read on.
The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification at Casa Doust runs thus.

cal 4We have three advent calendars. I bought this nativity scene a few years ago: every day we add a small paper cut out – the star, the sheep, a shepherd etc. etc., until we reach Mary, Joseph and finally the baby Jesus. We use it every year and enjoy the familiarity of what is added and when.


cal 3The second is a paper calendar or two sent by a grandma or two. This year two: a lovely red circle with a painting from the National Gallery and a delightful Christmas card advent calendar.




cal 2The third is a handmade pocket calendar sewn and given to us by Grandma when three other Gibson-siblings, now in their late 20s and, ahem, rather late 30s, were wondering who would be allowed The Original Sewn Calendar from childhood days gone by. Fond memories of our Christmas tree on its navy background will be nurtured in the house of Gibling the Younger and we older Giblings are consoling our sentimental sides with the handiwork and love of Nonna’s new creations. We move the marker daily and remove the hidden treat from the pocket.

The hidden treat. Herein lies our would-be marshmallow. The Advent Angel fills the 24 pockets with small chocolates. This year, they happen to be rather fine specimen from a delightful local chocolate shop. There are 24 pockets and three children, thus I have three each of eight different chocolate types. It’s all very egalitarian. Everyone will get one of each type of chocolate. She or he just has to wait his turn. As we near Christmas, on the last three days, there are two extra small chocolates in each pocket – to satisfy mounting excitement and, as it turns out, to reward delayed gratification.

As Advent approached and anticipation and excitement built, the children realised they would get to open an Advent Calendar every day, but only get to move the pointer in the chocolate calendar once every three days. They had some discussions about who was to go first. Even S., realising something interesting was going on, joined in with, ‘Me, me, ME. ME!’, asserting her right to participate.

H. very generously announced, ‘P. and S. can go first, I don’t mind’. Her generosity and altruism was immediately rewarded when she calculated that, as we rotate in order, in letting the others go before and waiting until 3 December for her first chocolate, she would also get number 24, which obviously has particular status. Bingo: the rewards both of generosity and of delayed gratification.

As an aside, please note that, because nobody was stressing her out about learning or using her times tables, H. readily, easily and of her own volition, used her three times tables to work this out. More on what motivates children to learn in another blog – for now, suffice to say I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a great deal recently.

The reason I am writing about this, though, is because of what happened on Day 1, as P. jumped out of bed in a frenzy of high energy excitement: ‘Advent! My day on the chocolate calendar!’ S. joined in the shrieks of delight and charged round the room squealing after her brother. (She’s quite infatuated with him at the moment, and spends most of every school day talking about him, thus: “P. P.? P? … Ahha, P…. Ahh, P.’, I think it’s partly because she likes the fact that she can say his name.) Needless to say, 21 month old S. was perhaps not quite so au fait with this turn taking lark as P. and H., but we explained that she would have her turn. Tomorrow.

As P unwrapped his golden square of chocolate, with anticipation not incomparable to that of Charlie searching for a golden ticket, he stopped and looked at me. ‘I will give a bit of it to S. and a bit to H.,’ he said…

… Altruism and kindness shone forth and I could almost see his halo. I was delighted.

‘And that means that tomorrow, when S. gets the chocolate, she’ll have to give some to me. Right?’

The halo dimmed a little, but I understood the need for equality.

So, here is my interesting twist on the Marshmallow Experiment . They have understood and taken on board that they are taking turns and – crucially for me – they are neither squabbling about that (don’t worry, we are far from perfect: they find other things over which to squabble!) nor are they demanding more than one chocolate calendar in the house. Beyond this, they’ve worked out that they can control that chocolate and influence the next one or two days. Generosity will pay off – a smaller piece on one’s own day will guarantee, with that sense of justice and fairness which is so innate and so strong within the hearts and minds of little people, a taste the next day.

Thus it is that each of the children waits for his or her day and chooses what he or she wants to do with the chocolate – they’ve all realised that it’s in their control. Even S. goes up to it, touches it fondly and asks ‘Me?’. Okay, sometimes it’s rather more of a statement, a ‘ME’, but two little people are quick to correct her if she’s a day early. We may forget whose day it is on the other calendars, but we never forget whose day it is for the chocolate pocket. But on her days, S. has embraced the generosity shown her by her siblings and readily shares her chocolate.

So now I kick back and wait for the more profound element of the experiment. I’ll let you know in about 25 years time, when the birds may have flown the nest, what effect this annual ritual may be having on the longer term character development of my little group of three.









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