The Family Weekly: Delayed Gratification

Revisiting the famous marshmallow test. Plus, the rise of "grandfamilies.”

Charles Dharapak / AP

This Week in Family

Or, perhaps more accurately, This Era in Family: Two of this week’s stories marked big shifts that have occurred on the scale of generations.

First: For almost a century, being a teenager in America meant getting a driver’s license. But, as the historian Gary Cross writes, the rising costs of car ownership and new restrictions on teen driving have led more and more young people to forgo that classic coming-of-age experience. Now, many teens get the privacy and independence that cars once afforded through other means, like smartphones. But as Cross notes, “one thing is gone: that magical age of 16, when suddenly a world opened up.”

Another big change to the American family: The proportion of children being raised by their grandparents has doubled in the U.S. since 1970—often for tragic reasons like a parent’s death, substance-abuse issues, or mental illness. For these grandparents, another round of parenting can be rewarding—but many of them, writes Robin Henig, are also left with limited resources and tremendous uncertainty about their legal rights and their ability to care for their grandkids.

Ralph Crane / Getty

Other Highlights

The marshmallow test has long been used to measure kids’ willpower. It works like this: Researchers put a marshmallow in front of a child and tell her she will get a second one if she’s able to go 15 minutes without eating the first one.

For decades, psychologists have believed that passing the test—first administered in the 1960s—is a sign of future success. But a new study revisited the test, this time with a bigger, more diverse group of children than the original study’s. The new paper suggests that poorer kids tend to find it harder to delay gratification, because for many of those kids, the sociologist Jessica Calarco writes, “daily life holds fewer guarantees … There is a risk that comes with waiting.” Affluence, meanwhile, can teach kids that the delay will be worthwhile. The takeaway? Maybe the underlying difference that matters in the test is not willpower, but inherited advantage.

The Big Question

The midlife crisis hasn’t always been considered a natural, predictable thing—until the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t much more than an obscure psychological theory. In an excerpt from her new book, There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story, the journalist Pamela Druckerman argues that in many ways, it was modernity that invented the midlife crisis:

By the time Elliott Jaques published “Death and the Mid-life Crisis” in 1965, the average life expectancy in Western countries had climbed to about 70. It made sense to change your life in your 30s or 40s, because you could expect to live long enough to enjoy your new career or your new spouse. …

The idea that a midlife crisis is inevitable soon jumped from Jaques’ academic paper to popular culture. And according to the new conventional wisdom, the 40s were the prime time for it to occur. In her 1967 book, The Middle-Age Crisis, the writer Barbara Fried claimed the crisis is “a normal aspect of growth, as natural for those in their 40s as teething is for a younger age group.”

Have you dealt up-close with a midlife crisis? If so, how have you coped (or how do you think you’ll cope)? Tell us your story in Homebodies, The Atlantic’s Facebook group for discussing family life.

Dear Therapist

Every Wednesday, the psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb answers readers’ questions about life’s trials and tribulations, big or small, in The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column.

This week, a grandparent writes in with concerns about a daughter-in-law’s parenting. “His mom and I don’t communicate well, but I think [my grandson] needs some help.”

Lori’s advice? Being a grandparent is different from being a parent, but that can actually be a good thing:

Many kids feel comfortable talking to a grandparent in a way they don’t with their own parents. You may discover that your grandson doesn’t need help after all, but if he does, you’re providing it. You won’t be able to do anything concrete with the information he shares—meaning, you won’t change how he interacts with his family—but you’ll be giving him the experience of being seen and heard, and that’s no small thing. Often, it’s a lifesaver.

Send Lori your questions at