If I could share only one piece of child-rearing advice, it would be to be sure to teach children self-control. Within the research community, a child’s ability to exhibit self-control is heralded as one of the most, if not the most, important predictors for future success and happiness.
Researchers find that children who can demonstrate self-control at an early age, end up graduating from high school and college, obtaining better jobs, maintaining healthy relationships, saving enough for retirement and report experiencing happiness more frequently than children who fail to demonstrate self-control in a clinical setting at an early age. The amount of research (longitudinal and otherwise) that examines self-control and delayed gratification is copious. The results of studies that examine these qualities most always result in the same findings: children who can self-regulate, from an early age, have greatly increased chances of enjoying a successful and happy adult life.
(The most famous of these studies is The Marshmallow Experiment, conducted by Walter Mischel of Standford University in 1972. In brief summary, a child is left in a room with one marshmallow and told that when the researcher returns in 15 minutes that he will be offered another marshmallow, for a total of 2 marshmallows, only if he refrains from eating the marshmallow already in front of him. The children’s success in waiting or failure to wait for the second marshmallow is correlated with their future success as an adult.)
The ability to delay gratification, or exhibit self-control, enables the capacity of one to work hard, engage in meaningful, long-lasting relationships, maintain physical health and regulate personal spending, among other things. But how do children gain the ability to control themselves and delay gratification? Can self-control be taught or is it a trait that is passed down genetically?
Science informs that one’s level of self-control in influenced by a combination of nature and nurture, but is more heavily shaped by nature. If self-control does not come naturally for a child, this does not mean that the child is destined for an unhappy or unsuccessful life, but it does mean that certain measures need to be taken to help the child develop self-control. In the case of a naturally self-regulated child, adults still need to reinforce and expand upon self-regulatory skills that are already present.
What can be done to help children learn to exhibit self-control through delayed gratification and other self-regulatory practices?
1) First and foremost, adhere to a consistent and loving discipline program. To learn more, read my article on Effective Discipline.
2) Instead of jumping to fulfill a child’s desires when they demand more milk, their favorite toy or another story, acknowledge their request and let them know that you’ll be happy to help when you have a moment. The younger the child, the harder it will be for them to wait. Take baby steps with children. A two year old who is just beginning to learn to delay their gratification, may only be able to hold out for 30 seconds before they feel like they have been abandoned completely. Steadily work on building up the time in between when the child makes a request and when the request is fulfilled. Keep using the phrase, “I am happy to help when I have a moment.” Train your children to ask preemptively, “When you have a moment, will you help me…..?”. This phrasing is less for the purpose of good manners and more to remind the child that they may have to wait to get what they want when making a request. As a disclaimer, babies are too young for this type of training. Babies require adults to respond quickly to their needs to enable healthy development.
3) Give your child an allowance. Children do not have to be old enough to count money or understand how much items cost before an allowance is useful. You will know a child is ready for an allowance when they start asking you to buy items. Instead of saying “no” constantly or, even worse, saying “yes” every time, give your child a couple dollars each week. Help them pick out an item that they desire to buy. Each time you give allowance money, help the child to save and discuss how waiting to spend brings them closer to obtaining their desires. If they want to buy small items along the way, allow them to and discuss how instead of choosing to save for one big item, now they have several small items that are not as exciting. A 4 or 5 year old child may be able to motivate themselves to save for weeks or months to buy a big ticket item. A child of 2 or 3 years may not be ready entirely or may be able to hold out for a couple of weeks.
4) Request that your child use good manners when interacting with other children and adults. Manners are important to help children develop a sense of respect for themselves and other people, but they also require a child to think before speaking or acting. Instead of screaming, “I want it now!” or “I need more milk!”, a child will have to withhold their intense feelings of displeasure and think through how to appropriately respond. Self-regulation is involved with pausing to think about how one desires to respond and then changing the desired response for strategical or ethical reasons. Learning to say, “Please, may I have one?”, takes practice, self-control and understanding of human of emotions, so give your child time. Luckily, using manners is needed routinely for daily living so there are many opportunities each day to practice. Even babies can learn the sign for “please”, but don’t expect them to use it unprompted or even require that they use it to have their needs met.
5) Keep a family calendar and countdown to exciting events. Waiting is very difficult for young children. The time in between receiving a birthday party invitation and actually attending the party can seem like centuries to a toddler. Help children practice waiting by keeping track of events on your calendar, making note of the passing of time. Comment on how many more days they need to wait and how many days they have already worked hard waiting through. Discuss that it can be frustrating to wait, but how exciting it is when the big day arrives.
6) Teach children to divert their attention. Children who successfully tackled the Marshmallow test and other waiting games use diversion as their key strategy for waiting. Children who naturally find other ways to focus their attention while they wait were significantly more likely to be successful in waiting. Adults can help train children to refocus their attention while waiting. When children ask for something, help them find something else to do while they wait. “It is hard to wait for Grandma to arrive, let’s play a game while we wait.”
7) Young children are naturally inclined to copy what adults do and so modeling appropriate self-regulatory behaviors is a highly effective way to encourage children to be self-controlled. When you display self-regulatory behaviors to your children, comment on your behaviors as though you are telling a story. Be sure to take note of how it may not be easy for you to wait, but that waiting or controlling yourself is important. For example: “I am very eager to be the first in line at the market. The people in front of us are taking longer than I thought they would. This is frustrating. Instead of yelling, I am going to see how many of the letter ‘R’s I can find on the packages of candy. Soon it will be my turn. Will you help me?”.
8) The older children become, the more significant role peers play in influencing children’s moral and behavioral decisions. If you want your children to exhibit more self-control, then help them make friends with other children who can self-regulate. If your child has a good friend who can be a little unhinged, to say it delicately, then you may need to decrease the frequency of playdates with that friend. Good and poor behavior is contagious, even early in life.
As a final note, don’t be too harsh or critical of a child’s ability or inability to self-regulate. Changing behavior takes time and lots of practice (for adults and children!). Feeling disapproved of only fuels more negative behaviors. Remember, you want the child to learn to be self-regulated, with the emphasis on “self”. Attempting to control children does not achieve that end. Best of luck!