Developing Self-Control for Success

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I am going to give you a marshmallow right now. However, if you can wait until I come back before eating it, I will give you another.”

That is the instruction from a classic psychological study referred to as the “marshmallow experiment”. The point of the study was to measure young children’s self-control and see how it predicted later behavior. Self-control refers to children learning how to control their impulses so as to accomplish their personal goals. The researchers in the marshmallow experiment found that within a few years, the children who waited for the second marshmallow had higher academic achievement than those who did not.

Other research followed and found that self-control can predict a range of positive outcomes for children. These included being able to concentrate better and having higher stress tolerance which are keys to doing better in school. Emotionally, these children were more empathetic, had better emotional regulation, and were more socially skilled.

All of these positive outcomes point to a skill that parents should focus on nurturing in their children. The good news is that self-control can be developed over time. There a few ways parents can encourage the development of self-control.

The first way to develop self-control in children is to establish a trusting relationship between the child and parent. This typically start in infancy as parents help infants calm down when they are upset by rocking and soothing them. Infants eventually learn how to manage their own emotions as a result.

Children continue to learn how to control their emotions by modeling what they see their parents do. They often look to adults to see how to behave and what to do during times of uncertainty. Parents who are calm and compassionate are more likely to have children that are the same way.

Another way to develop self-control is through imaginative play. Play allows children to set their own rules. This results in them being motivated to follow these rules because the game is fun. The constant practice of taking on various characters or roles in imaginative play requires a great deal of self-control. Decisions have to be made on how various characters will behave and react to the situations they are put into. Parents can join their children in play and ensure that various props are available that encourage children’s imagination.

As children get older, parents need to let them pursue activities and interests of their own. This pursuit of personal goals can provide the motivation to engage in self-control. An example would be a child who loves architecture. As a result, she saves her money for a Legos set rather than spending it when she is out with friends. The motivation to meet her goal provides her with more self-control.

The more opportunities children have to develop their self-control, the better they will get at it. Parents need to encourage this as much as possible as it will set up children’s success for many years to come. An added benefit is that children will learn how to chase after their own personal goals and the rewards that come with pursuing their interests.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Tuesday on October 18, 2016

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