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.
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