In the now-famous “marshmallow” experiments, researchers tested preschoolers’ self-control and ability to delay gratification by sitting them in a room alone with a tempting treat and measuring how long they were able to wait.
Years later, those kids who resisted temptation the longest also tended to have the highest academic achievement. In fact, their ability to delay eating the marshmallow was a better predictor of their future academic success than their IQ scores.
Further research has shown that self-control also correlates highly with greater stress tolerance and concentration abilities, as well as increased empathy, better emotion regulation, and social competence.
While parents who hope that their children will be high achievers often focus on tutoring, advanced classes, and more study time, the research on self-control suggests that a “backdoor” approach may be more likely to succeed and that it’s also better for kids.
Instead of focusing directly on achievement per se, we can help our children be successful by helping them practice and develop skills related to self-control.
For young kids in particular, imaginative play is an especially critical part of practicing self-control, since during play, kids set their own rules and are motivated to respect those rules when the game is fun.
As neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang note, “To play school, you have to act like a teacher or a student, and inhibit your impulses to act like a fighter pilot or a baby. Following these rules provides children with some of their earliest experiences with controlling their behavior to achieve a desired goal.”
Playing is not the opposite of learning—playing IS learning.
Self-control is a skill that can be improved through practice, so be sure your child has lots of opportunities. Remember this is not about following rules in order to please others or avoid punishment; it’s about learning to control one’s own impulses in order to achieve a goal. (In the marshmallow study, kids were not punished for eating the marshmallow right away, nor were they praised for waiting, but kids knew they would get a second marshmallow if they waited.)
Keep in mind that children vary in their initial ability to demonstrate self-control, so start at the level where your child is now. The goal is to help your child succeed at developing this vital skill, so focus on her progress relative to where she was before and praise her for doing better this time, rather than comparing her to others.
Being compared to others who are doing better, or repeated failures because a task is too challenging, may leave kids feeling inferior and resistant to trying anymore. Instead, create a positive feedback loop based on small, incremental successes.
TRY THIS: Start by ensuring that kids have ample time for self-directed play. As noted above, imaginative play is a crucial setting for early experiences of self-control, because the enjoyment of the game provides the motivation to try.
In addition to self-directed play, kids can also practice self-control by doing fun activities with their parents that involve some structure, such as taking turns. Aamodt and Wang suggest board games, as long as parents allow kids to monitor themselves (e.g., avoid reminding your child repeatedly that it’s not her turn yet).
If kids are having a hard time controlling themselves during the game, then look for other activities that allow them to have a successful experience of self-control based on their current skill level.
As your children get older, remember that successfully practicing self-control begets greater self-control. Researchers liken developing self-control to developing a muscle—the more we do it, the better we get.
This post is excerpted from my new book, "WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive" (Penguin Random House, 2016).
"An essential Rules of the Road for would-be parents" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, New York Times best-selling author of "Flow")
"Packed with useful, practical advice and how-to's, this book promises to be one that every parent will wish they had from day one." (Madeline Levine, New York Times bestselling author of "The Price of Privilege")