What can young children teach us about willpower?
We know that many children can successfully resist temptation. Children in the marshmallow experiments of Dr. Walter Mischel were challenged to resist eating one marshmallow in order to gain two marshmallows if they waited 20 minutes for the experimenter to return. Some children gave in to temptation, but others figured out how to use distraction to make the time go by. Waiting alone for 20 minutes is pretty amazing for a 4-year-old! Indeed, the children who could wait were destined for more success in academics and life than those who could not.
But I can tell you even more amazing true stories of children with willpower. While the Mischel experimenters set the goal and rewards for the children, here are 4 incredible true stories of children who set their own goals for their own reasons:
Jane’s story: “I remember reading in my health textbook in about third grade, that one should visit the dentist twice a year. In my family, no one ever went to the dentist until there was a problem! But as a young child, I thought, "This is what we should do." And as soon as I was old enough to have my own money, I made an appointment for a check-up and have seen my dentist every six months ever since. My Dad had dentures by the time he was fifty, but I still have my own teeth in my 70's!”
Bert’s story: When Bert was 10, he broke his leg playing footfall. He was rushed to the ER. Once there, the doctor explained in a quiet, confident voice what had happened and what he would do to fix his leg. Bert noticed that the doctor used the same calm voice to speak to the nurses and assistants, even in high pressure situations. He became so fascinated by the ER itself that he decided then and there to become a doctor. Bert is an ER doctor to this day. (Though Bert's story is unique, he also represents thousands of children who turned an adverse childhood experience into a positive career choice.)
Adela’s story: Little 3-year-old Adela was being pressured by her father to stop sucking her thumb. Finally Adela told him firmly, “I’m just 3! I’ll stop sucking my thumb when I’m 4.” All through her 3rd year, she persistently explained to her parents that she had decided to quit when she turned 4. And on the night before her 4th birthday, she did just that! She never put her thumb in her mouth again. "I still marvel," said her mother.
Meg’s story: "When I was about 6, I wanted to spend the night at my older cousin Ginger’s house. But the event went badly. I needed a light to sleep at night because I was afraid of the dark. Ginger could not sleep with a light on. Conflict! So I decided to cure myself of the fear of the dark. Every night as usual I would switch on the closet light. But with each passing night I would shut the door a little more so I could become gradually accustomed to the dark. Eventually I could sleep with just the few rays of light that peeked out from under the door. Finally I turned off the light altogether." Systematic desensitization, anyone?
These young willpower mavens were not simply obedient children. Willpower is not obedience! It’s true that there are almost always elements of extrinsic motivation in willpower—the desire to please a teacher or another person certainly comes into play in some of these stories. Still, these 4 children demonstrated all the elements of what I would call “pure” willpower:
- Choosing a unique reason to change—a personal motivator.
- Establishing a goal.
- Making the change decision independently.
- Using a valued motivator to guide his or her decisions over a long period of time.
As PT blogger Kelly McGonigal points out in her book, The Willpower Instinct, there's "I won't" power and there's "I want" power, both forms of willpower. The marshmallow children used "I won't" power to keep themselves from gobbling the marshmallow on impulse. The 4 other children used "I want" power to choose goals for themselves. (There's also "I will" power to keep yourself on task at a given moment.)
These stories show that many children are capable of independent choices at a very young age. They also demonstrate that children have emotional lives of surprising depth. Did you or your child ever use willpower at an early age? Tell us your story in Comments!
© Meg Selig
For more on children and habits, see this incredible blog by Dr. Susan Heitler on the decision to stop thumb-sucking: “Lessons from Thumb-sucking: The Earliest Addiction,” by Susan Heitler.
Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.