Are You a Role Model?

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Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Who do you think children look up to when they are at a young impressionable age? Do you find that certain children behave similarly to someone? Could it be you? Could you be looking at your own reflection? If yes, do you like what you see?

This was an experiment done by Dr. Walter Mischel, who created the Marshmallow test, along with his student Robert Liebert. The name of the experiment is ‘The Role of Power in the Adoption of Self-Reward Patterns.’

Firstly, they selected fourth-grade boys and girls who are around the age of ten years old. In their individual sessions, a young woman (the model) was introduced to the child, whom then acquainted the child with a “bowling game.” Designed and made by a toy company who wanted to test it on children to judge their level of interest. It was a miniature version of a bowling alley, with signal lights at the end that registered the score for each trial. The target area at the end of the runway was screened so that the bowler could not see where the ball hit and relied on the score displayed in the signal lights for their performance. The scores were preset and not connected to the actual performance, but in a way that made them completely credible. Within an easy arm’s reach was a large bowl full of tokens - colourful poker chips - that the child and the model could use to reward themselves for their performance. They were told that the chips held valuable prizes at the end, and the more chips, the better the prize. The attractively wrapped prizes were in full view in the room but were not openly discussed.

Three different types of scenarios were conceived by them. Namely the “tough standards”, “tough on model, easy on child” and “easy on model, tough on child.” This served as a guide for the model to determine how she should reward herself and how to guide the child to evaluate his or her own performance. Each child participated in only one of these conditions.

In the “tough standards” scenario, the model was demanding with herself as well as the child. Taking a token when the model’s score was high; for example, when it was above twenty points. Giving self-approving opinion like “That is a good score, that deserves a chip” or “I can be proud of that score, I should treat myself for that.” When the score was lower than twenty points, she abstained from taking a token and criticised herself. She treated the child exactly how she treated herself.

In the “tough on model, easy on child” scenario, the model was tough on herself, but lenient with the child, leading him or her to self-reward for lower scores.

In the “easy on model, tough on child” scenario, she was lenient with herself but held the child to a stringent standard of self-rewarding for only the best score.

After the children participated in one of these conditions, the researchers observed them from behind the plexiglass where the tokens were freely available. Children embraced the most exacting standards on themselves when they had learned from a tough-on-herself model, who was equally tough on them. When the criteria and demands were consistent with the model, the children adopted those standards without deviation when she was not present.

Children who were cheered to take it easy on themselves stayed that way in the post-test when they were left on their own, even when they had witnessed the model who was demanding on herself. The last group of children was held to a stringent self-reward standard during training and had learned with a model who was lenient with herself. It appeared that half retained the more stringent method that they had been taught while the other half used the more liberal standards that they had observed on the model.

This study suggested that if you want your children to adopt the high self-reward standards, it will be a fantastic idea to nurture them to embrace the tough standards while also implementing it on yourself. As the saying goes, ‘monkeys see, monkeys do’ – if you are not consistent and are tough on your children but lenient on yourself, there is a good chance that your children will adopt the self-reward standards you modelled and not the ones you imposed on them.