“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power…It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it?”
We can think of self-discipline as the ability to manage ourselves to reach our goals. In Walter Mischel's Marshmallow experiments, he tests how long a child can resist eating a treat, if it means she will then get two treats that she really wants. In other words, does the child have the self-discipline to control her impulses to meet her goal?
The bad news is that our self-control as a four year old seems to predict not only our self-discipline later in life, but our happiness as well. (If you haven't read it yet, you'll want to start with our last post: Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?)
The good news is that about 30% of four year olds can already manage their emotions, anxiety and impulses well enough to resist the temptation, at least some of the time. The even better news is that there are ways for children to practice building that self control, by having early experiences that help them WANT to do so.
Alfie Kohn, with whom I agree about most parenting issues, questions whether "self discipline" is even a desirable trait to encourage. He defines it very differently than I do, however: "marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." That's not "SELF" discipline as I define it because the goals come from outside of us. The part that's interesting about the marshmallow experiment to me is that the four year olds who could control themselves to not eat the treat IF they trusted the experimenter and IF they wanted another treat grew into happier adults.
I think that's because these children could manage their impulses to meet their goals. Our ability to manage our emotions, anxiety and impulses is essential if we want to meet our goals, from getting along on the playground to holding a job. And adults who repeatedly fail to realize their aspirations in life are certainly less happy. To clarify this, we might want to think of this trait as "emotional regulation" rather than "self-discipline."
By the way, there's a common misconception, popularized by Pam Druckerman in Bringing Up Bébé; that kids in France learn better self-control than American kids because they're trained early to wait for their parents' attention and to follow rigid schedules. But there's zero evidence of this. Walter Mischel has never conducted the Marshmallow test with French kids, so there's no evidence that they'd do better on it than American kids. And there are no studies asserting that French adults are more self-disciplined than American adults, so the whole idea is clearly suspect! But I do think Druckerman has a point about waiting, which I'll explain in #7 below.
Let's look at the steps to developing self-control.
1. The foundation of self-control is trust.
Parents who are responsive to children's needs foster trust. When the hungry infant wakes up crying and the parent picks him up and feeds him, he learns to trust that food will come. Every time he's soothed, his brain strengthens the neural pathways to soothe anxiety and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow him to soothe himself.
Eventually, this child will trust that he will indeed get the marshmallow eventually, so he doesn't have to eat it this minute. And he'll be able to soothe his own impatience and worry to manage himself in any situation. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and foster a feeling of safety and acceptance.
Not surprisingly, when the Marshmallow test is manipulated so that the child has more trust in the experimenter, the child is able to wait longer to eat the marshmallow. When the child has less trust in the experimenter, he eats the marshmallow sooner. Wouldn't you?
2. Children learn emotional regulation from our modeling.
When parents can't manage their own emotions and react angrily, or take their child's challenging behavior personally, the child gets a clear message that life is full of emergencies. This handicaps the child in learning to soothe his own upsets, which makes it difficult for him to control his emotions or behavior. So the most important thing you can do to help your child learn self-control is probably to regulate your own emotions so you can stay calm and compassionate with your child.
3. Little ones take their cues about anxiety from us.
When your toddler climbs too high, gets frightened, and wants to come down, how do you respond? If you can "guide" her down, talking soothingly so she can stay calm, you're teaching self-control. She's creating the brain pathways to talk herself through difficult situations in the future. But if you let her anxiety rattle you so that you swoop in to grab her down, she not only learns that she's incompetent, but that anxiety can't be tolerated, so she has to rush in and take action, rather than regulating herself to make rational decisions. That rushing tendency comes from anxiety and sabotages the building of the neural pathways she needs to stay calm.
4. Self control is made possible by the developing the brain.
Toddlers don't have the ability to resist a treat left available to them, while 30% of four year olds and virtually all adults do. What makes the difference? The prefrontal cortex, which is barely developed in a two year old and reaches maturity around the age of 25. How do you strengthen the prefrontal cortex? Practice! Some people have theorized that children who are "smarter" are the ones who are able to wait. But "smartness" is not static, and it is not just innate ability. It depends on being able to control your anxiety and your impulses, which we know is strengthened every time the child CHOOSES to do so. Why would any child choose to overcome her impulse to do something? Because there is something she wants more than her fixation of the moment. That something is her connection with the parent.
5. Practice makes perfect.
Every time kids voluntarily give up something they want for something they want more, they build the neural pathways in the frontal cortex that are associated with self-discipline. Notice this doesn't happen unless it's the child's goal. When he's forced to give something up, he isn't practicing self-discipline. Notice if he never has to let go of something he wants, he doesn't get the chance to practice controlling himself. The child is practicing self-discipline only when he has a goal -- for instance, two marshmallows soon (or maybe his mother's approval) -- which is more important to him than his immediate desire -- for instance, one marshmallow immediately (or maybe to knock his little sister down.)
6. Empathic Limits give kids practice in self-discipline.
Every time we set a limit that our child accepts, she's practicing self-control. Sure, she'd rather keep playing, but she gets in the bath because there's something she wants more than to play all night. No, not to splash all over the bathroom. What she wants is the loving connection with her parents.
So punishment doesn't encourage self-discipline because the child isn't actually choosing to stop what she was doing; she's being forced.
Note that permissiveness doesn't encourage self-discipline because the child doesn't feel a need to stop herself. Setting a limit with understanding, so that your child is WILLING to accept it, is what helps your child develop self-discipline.
7. Waiting is good practice -- up to a point.
Every time we exercise self-control, we build our ability to draw on it to meet our goals. So it's true, as Druckerman asserts, that kids who get practice "waiting" do learn to tolerate waiting, to trust that the waiting will be worth it, and to learn strategies for waiting. This only helps kids develop self control, though, if we've first observed #1, 2, and 3, above. In other words, if the parent makes the child wait for longer than she's developmentally able (not soothing as in #1), her anxiety about getting her needs met overwhelms her and she learns she has to scream to get what she wants, rather than learning self control. And if the parent is yelling at the child to wait (as in #2, above) the child learns that it's an emergency, which sabotages her attempts at self-control.
What's more, the parent needs to be lovingly available to help the child overcome the anxiety of waiting, as in #3 above. To take another example:
"You are so hungry, I know...The pasta is almost cooked...Come, let's get the colander so we can drain it."
This reassures the child that the food is indeed coming, and teaches the valuable skill of self-distraction (which is a primary skill used by preschoolers who pass the marshmallow test). If, instead, the parent snaps "Stop whining, you aren't starving--I'm moving as fast as I can!" the child may experience the parent as withholding something she needs, and she's given no help to learn to wait.
Does she learn that she eventually gets fed? Yes, but not without some anxiety along the way, which won't help her resist that marshmallow. And since she experiences herself as frequently struggling against her parent, she has no incentive to stay open to parental influence--so why not take whatever marshmallows she can whenever she can?
The bottom line on waiting is that while we can encourage the development of self-control by empathically helping our child endure discomfort, it backfires if kids think we're tormenting them. Luckily, life gives kids plenty of practice in waiting without our orchestrating it, because:
8. Children learn self-control naturally as they attempt to master their world.
Kids develop self-discipline when they're motivated by something important to them. Playing with other kids requires them to manage their emotions and impulses. Making cookies requires them to wait until the cookies are baked. Getting good at soccer requires them to practice kicking over and over.
Every time a child has to manage himself, he learns a strategy that helps him. For instance, the children who are able to resist the treat are proficient at refocusing their attention to concentrate on something else. When the researcher leaves the room, they distract themselves. After one longing look at the marshmallow, a child will ignore it, instead pulling out the most interesting toy from the shelf. How did he learn this? By the repeated experience of wanting something badly enough that he regulated himself to get it.
Are you worried that your child might eat the marshmallow? I have good news for you.
Mischel acknowledges that a "substantial subset of people failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults." Researchers are still conducting longitudinal studies to figure out how they did it. But we know that self-control is all about learning to regulate our emotions, which allows us to regulate our thoughts and behavior. As Mischel says,
"We can’t control the world, but we can control how we respond to it. Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."
So the die is NOT cast at age four. The brain is like a muscle -- it strengthens throughout life, depending on how it's used. Parents who are emotionally responsive, set empathic limits, model emotional regulation, and encourage children to pursue their passions will raise self-disciplined kids, and that's probably true regardless of whether the child passes the marshmallow test at age four.
Does it sound like the parents' own self discipline predicts the child's? You bet. But that's another study.