How to teach your kids self-control


It's one of the most important traits to cultivate in a child -- here are the tools you need as a parent.

Apple teaches our kids that they can have images, knowledge, and experiences on demand. Nintendo teaches them that games are instantaneous missions in an exotic world. Inflatable Fun Factory and Six Flags teach them that unimaginable thrills are just an admission away. Hershey’s and Coca-Cola teach them that cheap treats are always available. But just who is invested in teaching our kids the value of waiting and delaying gratification, and is it really that important?

In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues began with a simple idea. They developed a study in which they offered 4-year-olds two options: you can have a marshmallow now, OR if you can wait until we return, you can have two marshmallows. The children were left alone for 15 to 20 minutes with one marshmallow and the hidden cameras rolled.

Ten to 15 years later, these same children were assessed on many factors. The results were astounding. The longer children waited for the two marshmallows, the more likely they were to be rated by their parents as being more attentive, competent, organized, self-motivated, optimistic, and intelligent. Perhaps the most stunning finding was the connection between the number of seconds a 4-year-old took to grab the marshmallow and their SAT scores as high schoolers. Those who did not grab the marshmallow scored on average 200 points higher than those who did. Those who waited longer, even if they still ended up giving into temptation, generally scored higher than those who couldn’t resist gobbling right away. Followed as adults, those who delayed had more successful marriages, better health, greater occupational satisfaction, and better financial habits.

What did all this mean? And was this simple measure of self-control simply a substitute for something else, like intelligence? A study published in 2010 called “A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety” had followed 1,000 children from birth through 32 years. The researchers wanted to determine what different factors could predict outcomes in adulthood. Three factors emerged: self-control, IQ, and socioeconomic status (SES).

Self-control was defined as skills related to self-discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance. A child’s self-control at the age of three, regardless of their IQ and amount of wealth, was significantly associated with the following areas at age 32: physical health, substance abuse and dependence, social status, wealth, single vs. double parent household, financial planning and security, and likelihood of committing a crime.  Even more amazing, it wasn’t just that those with the least self-control had poor outcomes. No matter where “on the curve” they were, their self-control predicted just how good or bad things could be.

Siblings with similar IQs in the same household could show very different outcomes. The apparent reason: their degree of self-control, or delayed gratification. The authors tested the argument that self-control was inherited like IQ or other factors. They looked to see whether improvement in self-control during childhood made any difference. The results were no surprise. The more improvement a child showed, the less they were at risk for negative outcomes as an adult.

As parents, we are the first instructors in these critical skills, yet it is never harder than it is today, and yet never more important. Years ago, the group Mind in the Making began promoting essential skills for kids. I use these 7 essential skills as template to provide ideas for teaching self-control and patience:

Focus and self-control: Use simple activities (e.g., reading a book, playing with blocks, putting a puzzle together) to teach children how to play with objects that do not give any feedback, but require curiosity and attention. Start with how long they can focus at the present time. Gradually work to increase the amount of time that they spend engaged through reinforcement and interaction.

Perspective taking: Make sure to educate daily and ask questions about how another person they encounter might feel. When they want something now or something that another person has, make sure to teach them (on their level) about the importance of waiting and understanding that all other people have needs too.

Communicating: Teach them that they cannot be heard immediately at all times and in all situations. Sometimes they may have to wait, especially if adults are talking. Even forcing them to be patient for a few seconds before a response is granted can teach them to understand there are appropriate boundaries. Educate them to be polite in greeting and responding. It may mean they have to delay an immediate urge to play or greet. They also need to be taught to take turns when others are speaking.

Making connections: This is critical for learning — understanding similarities and differences, and sorting these things into categories. This does not occur unless they learn to handle frustration and mistakes. Teach them to persevere through difficult problems, handle disappointment well, and not avoid things immediately just because they are hard or boring. Reward them for trying hard regardless of the results. Help them understand how good it feels to persevere through a challenge.

Critical thinking: The key is teaching young kids to be patient with tasks. Frustration does not have to occur when trial and error learning does not work out the first time. Young kids can be taught to pause and take a deep breath for a couple of seconds before trying again. Parents can teach patience in critical thinking. Asking a series of questions can help lead children to an answer instead of giving it right away.

Taking on challenges: Parents can reinforce this by acknowledging that something might be hard. Teach kids to take even a few seconds to think about the next step. When something doesn’t work out the first time, excitement can still be shown over a good attempt. Children should not be removed right away from reasonable challenges just because they are difficult.

Self-directed, engaged learning: Offer simple toys and opportunities that encourage the child to be creative. These include Play-doh, Legos, and other building toys. Set up outside areas with sand boxes, open areas, and even garden spaces designed to arouse a child’s curiosity. Reward their attempts to try new things. Learn to leave them alone regularly or with other children to explore on their own.

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