This is not really about marshmallows -- it’s about kids. I’m drawing on a lecture by Laurence Steinberg, whose book “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence” is hot right now. I’ll put the link to one of his lectures at the bottom of this post. In the meantime, you need to know about an experiment with little kids. The small child was put at a table with a marshmallow in front of him and told that if he could sit there for ten minutes without eating that marshmallow, he could have two. Then the adult left to watch through a one-way mirror. Some kids just ate it right away. Some waited but not long enough, and some did the job.
Marshmallow handmade by Martha Stewart
Steinberg does better than that in some ways. He says the four criteria for “success” in life (which I assume he defines as a secure and prosperous no-trouble life) are to graduate from high school, not to have children until marriage (as late as is possible), to never quit a job without lining up another one first, and not to break laws. In short, to conform to expectations. He also notes that merely starting college won’t be much of a help in getting a job, and anyway one-third of students drop out, presumably because they have no grit. (Also, no money and mounting debt.) Maybe no high school foundation for college level learning. There is no mention of race.
These are mammal facts, true of animals that have adolescence -- which they all do. They all are more easily addicted during that period, which means addiction is a matter of exposure rather than moral turpitude. Having raised foxes, bobcats, and badgers as well as cats and dogs through their adolescence, I’ve seen their drive for more independence, which has evolved to take them to new territory instead of attaching them to the parental context. They leave. If they are prevented, the "wild" become hostile. Most domestic animals get in line.
Animals, even humans, are perhaps most lovable between the age when they can hold a crayon and when puberty begins. Puberty is not the same as adolescence, but it is the kick-off shift that the adrenals fire up, part of which is prompting ovaries to release eggs. We are aware that this is happening sooner than it did before, down to ages 7 and 8, before a female body is able -- even large enough -- to support a baby to a healthy outcome, before a uterus is fully developed. 14, the previously usual onset, is in a female an age at which they are nearly full-grown. Also, adolescence at the older end is extended, but mostly because of economic and educational reasons.
Adolescents caught in war have shortened lives, but Steinberg says nothing about how it affects neural plasticity. He DOES suggest that hypothalmic pituitary/adrenal relationship has something to do with it. When I googled, I got http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4160346/ “Relational victimization, friendship, and adolescents’ hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis responses to an in vivo social stressor.” As nearly as I can tell at a superficial glance, it is about how adolescents turn to each other for help and advice. (See “Lisa Bright and Dark” for a vivid example.) We’re well aware of this dynamic, the clustering of adolescents into sort of proto-families for reassurance and ideas. If a high schooler has NO support group, or is ostracized, life can be terrifying. But I don’t see stress or outright fear on the list of triggers for early onset puberty, despite the link to adrenaline.
Everyone reflects on their own adolescence. Mine was indeed a time of enormous stress -- enough to rage at home but not at school. (We expected an atomic bomb momentarily.) Once I found the dramatics department, that was my refuge. But looking back I’m astounded at how terrified I was of having low grades, how driven I was to stay safe by achieving without any clear idea of how to do it. That’s probably been the through-line of my life. I still pressure myself to turn out blog post essays (as thought still in school), but not to do housework or yardwork. Most people here are wired in the opposite way: protecting the image of their home but trying not to be too flashy or a show-off, too "smart."