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Promoting Self Control: It Might Not Be What You Think

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In my travels around the country with Mind in the Making, it seems as if people increasingly understand that heaping indiscriminate praise on children ("good job" or "you are so smart") is not a good way to promote self-confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps this shift in awareness has occurred because it primarily comes from the work of single researcher, Carol Dweck of Stanford University. She has shown that praise for intelligence tends to promote a "fixed mindset" whereby children end up believing that their capacities are inborn. Thus, these children are less willing to take on tough challenges because they don't want to risk losing their label as smart. In contrast, specific and authentic praise for effort ("you worked very hard until you solved that math problem" or for strategy ("you sounded out the letters so you could figure out what that new reading word is"), promotes a "growth mindset" where children are willing to "take on challenges" -- one of the life skills I have found is essential in helping children thrive now and in the future.

Sadly, we haven't come as far in our cultural understanding of another life skill I find essential -- "self control." Perhaps it's because the findings in this realm of research come from many different researchers and many different studies. Yes, the Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel of Columbia University has gained widespread recognition, but as often as not, I find that people seem to think that adults need to "make" children learn to wait so that they will be able to resist "one marshmallow now for two marshmallows later" -- the challenge Mischel posed in this study. In essence, people tend to think that teaching children delayed gratification comes from strict and enforced discipline.

For this reason, I welcomed the New York Times editorial by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang: Building Self-Control, the American Way. They have spent their careers researching and writing about neuroscience. As authors of many books and articles, including Welcome to Your Child's Brain, (a book for which I wrote the Foreword), they know the multiple studies that conclude that promoting "self control" is not learned by strict discipline, by keeping children at their desks, and by cutting out the so-called frills in curriculum and focusing just on academics.

First, the undeniable importance of self control. As Aamodt and Wang write in the editorial: "childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement." Likewise, in Mind in the Making, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia focuses on executive functions of the brain -- the basis of life skills -- because they enable children to use what they learn. She says that more and more evidence is revealing that executive function skills including self control "actually predict success better than IQ tests."

So, how do we promote self control? Here are a few ideas from research that show it's not how we might think.

  1. It's building on what children are doing to control themselves -- not imposing strict discipline. Even infants, immediately following birth, have ways of regulating themselves when they get over-stimulated. Watch a baby close his or her eyes if the lights are too bright, or turn away if there is too much noise. We need to watch what calms children down and help them build on their own strategies for self control. Obviously as adults, we provide firm guidance, but we are better served by helping children learn to come up with their own strategies beginning in the preschool and extending into the school-age years rather than simply imposing them. For example, Walter Mischel is now looking at what children did to resist the immediate gratification of "one marshmallow now" for the delayed gratification of "two marshmallows later" and helping children learn those techniques (such as thinking of the marshmallows as puffy clouds rather than yummy marshmallows).
  2. It's providing children opportunities to engage in physical games and experiences -- not making them sit still for long hours.
    We tend to think of promoting self control as making children stay still, yet there is increasing evidence that children learn this skill through active games (like Red Light/Green Light or Simon Says, Do the Opposite) and through focused attention in physical activities. In a time when schools are cutting back on recess and physical education, Aarmodt and Wang write, "Though parents often worry that physical education takes time away from the classroom, an analysis of multiple studies instead found strong evidence that physical activity improved academic performance."
  3. It's giving children opportunities to play -- not just do academics.
    Though pretend play may be seen as frivolous, it is an essential building block in learning. Think of the concentration in young children when they play doctor or firefighter. And think of the concentration in older children when they learn about another culture by putting on a play about it.
  4. It's encouraging children's interests -- not cutting back on them.
    I call these interests "lemonade stands" after my daughter's passion for lemonade stands when she was five and six-years-old. Whatever their interests, we do well to promote them and build on them. Increasingly research is showing that the arts and academic success are linked. And sadly, schools today are also cutting back on the arts.
  5. It's helping children set and achieve goals -- not imposing them. Self control draws on executive functions of the brain and as such are always goal-driven. We do well to help children set and achieve their own goals, rather than handing goals to them, whether it's making a plan for how they will spend Saturday to making plans for getting a school paper done on time. As Aamodt and Wang write in the New York Times, "Helping your children learn to manage themselves, rather than rely on external orders, could pay big dividends in adulthood."