A study using the so-called “marshmallow test” has shown that four-year-olds from the rural Nso community in Cameroon have more self-control in the face of temptation than middle-class German children of the same age. The different levels of self-control were related to more authoritarian parenting styles in the Nso families.

In the marshmallow test, children in an empty room are offered two alternatives: eat the sweet now on the table, or wait till the researcher returns (in this case, 10 minutes) and get two. All the children start off with the intention of waiting, but not all are able to do so.

The ability to delay gratification is a valuable life skill, enabling better achievement of longer-term goals. In earlier experiments using the marshmallow test, conducted in the 1960s and 1970s in the USA, young children who were able to wait to get two sweets were likely to be more socially and academically competent during their teenage years.

The Nso community in the Northwest of Cameroon is made up of subsistence farmers. They live in extended families andexperience little formal school education. Their strict social hierarchy is characterised by a duty of respect and obedience to elders and care of the young. Caregivers are close to their children. They take the lead and instruct, control and train them. Controlling one’s emotions and not disturbing adult activities are considered important qualities for children.

In contrast, German middle-class children tend to live in small nuclear families. Their parents are older, and they tend to encourage their children to express emotions, intentions and preferences and to foster a sense of independence. Parenting is observant and child-centred.

The study involved 76 Nso children and 125 German children. Children visited the laboratory with a parent three or four times; the marshmallow test was conducted during the final visit. Rather than a marshmallow, the researchers used a sweet popular with children in each of the two communities. The researchers found that:

70% of the Nso children held out for 10 minutes, but only 28% of the German children did.

50% of the German children succumbed to temptation and ate the single sweet, but only 29% of the Nso children did. The average delay time was 4.56 minutes for the German children and 7.73 minutes for the Nso children.

22% of the German children left the room, but only one Nso child did.

The German children were more active during the experiment, distracting themselves through talking or singing and showing more frustration. The Nso children were quieter; eight of them actually fell asleep.

Four years earlier, the experimenters had looked at maternal behaviour with some of the families, when the children was nine months old. After two or three visits to the laboratory, mother-infant play was observed and coded at a final session. Nso mothers were more structured and more directive of their child’s play than were the German mothers.

The mothers were also asked to rate a number statements about how children should learn and develop in their first years of life. Some statements emphasised children’s autonomy, and some emphasised attunement to a hierarchical social structure. The German mothers rated autonomous goals above hierarchical goals; the Nso mothers did the opposite.

There was a significant correlation between more hierarchical parenting and a child’s ability to delay gratification to get the second sweet.

This experiment shows a clear link between parenting style and child development in two very different cultures. It also demonstrates how different parenting can be in different cultures. Both factors are important for research and parent-support programmes across different cultures.

Header photo: Corinne Staley. Creative Commons.