I never knew we could learn so much about raising children from a simple marshmallow. But, the classic “marshmallow test” suggested that children with greater self-control also experienced greater health and success as adults. In response we wondered: “How can we nurture self-control in our children?”
A twist on the “marshmallow study” showed that children exhibit more self-control when the adults around them followed through on their promises. In other words, when children see their parents as reliable, they practice better self-control. Reliable parents, parents who follow through on promises, nurture self-control in children.
Now, a third twist on the “marshmallow test” gives us another parenting hint. This study tested the ability of children from Japan and the United States to delay gratification for either food (a marshmallow) or a wrapped gift among children in Japan and children in the United States. The researchers hoped to discover how culture might influence self-control. Interestingly, children in Japan waited significantly longer for food (about 15 minutes) than did the U.S. children (less than a 4-minute wait); but the U.S. children waited longer before opening a gift (almost 15 minutes) than did the Japanese children (less than 5 minutes). These differences may reflect cultural training differences. Specifically, waiting to eat is emphasized more in Japan than in the U.S. and waiting to open gifts is emphasized more in the U.S. than in Japan. In other words, culturally specific habits impact delayed gratification and self-control in children.
What does this mean for our families? Families can nurture self-control in their children by…wait for it…wait…yes…building a family environment that is comfortable with waiting, even encourages waiting. You can do this by identifying opportunities to politely and appropriately allow your children (and you) to wait. In doing so, we will develop a culture (a home environment) that emphasizes habits nurturing delayed gratification and impulse control. Life is filled with opportunities to nurture the ability to wait, the ability to strengthen self-control. Here are some examples:
Wait until everyone sits down at the table and the family has prayed before eating the food on the table.
Wait your turn to open your presents. Or wait until everyone is present before opening your presents.
Play games that involve taking turns so each person has to wait his or her turn.
When you want to watch a show with your family but two people want to watch a different show, pick one and let the other show wait for another time. Make sure it’s not always the same person who has to wait.
Wait for dessert until the table is cleared and kitchen cleaned up.
Teach children how to wait by occupying themselves with another activity. Engage your child in calm waiting activities. Prepare ahead for activities you know will involve waiting, like going to a doctor’s office.
Save the favorite activity for the second half of the day…and enjoy the wait.
Self-control is a skill that will serve our children well for a lifetime. In fact, the classic “Marshmallow Experiment” suggested that preschoolers who had enough self-control to delay gratification and wait for a bigger reward had higher SAT scores as late teens. They were also more likely to be described as positive, self-motivated, self-confident, and persistent at the end of high school. We all want that for our children, right? So how can we teach our children self-control? There are many ways to teach our children self-control, but I want to share five somewhat surprising ways to promote self-control in our children.
Model self-control. I know that doesn’t sound so surprising. In fact, it’s rather obvious. It’s so obvious we probably need a little motivation to do it…AND that brings me to the surprising part of modeling self-control. A study that followed almost 1,000 people from the age of 3-years to 45-years found that children who exhibited a higher level of self-control walked faster, had younger looking faces, and had healthier bodies when they became adults! In other words, practicing self-control not only teaches our children a great life skill, it also helps us look and feel younger. Want to look and feel younger? Practice self-control and model it for our children.
Encourage your child to talk to themselves.One study found that saying the name of an object while looking for it made the person better able to find the object than simply thinking about it. (I have tested this one and it works for me.) Another study suggested that talking to oneself about a task increases that person’s ability to restrain impulses (AKA, practice self-control). Encouraging your child to talk to themselves as they engage in an activity can also help them restrain impulses and remain focused. This also means that yelling at our children may interfere with their self-control. Why? Because our yelling will compete with their own self talk. Our loud words will silence their self-talk and interfere with their self-control, leaving them open to more impulsive behaviors. Stop yelling at your children and encourage them to talk to themselves.
Give your children time to play with their father. According to a review of 78 studies, children who played with their fathers had more self-control as they matured. Fathers tend to engage in “rough and tumble play” which helped their children learn to better regulate their feelings and behaviors. Overall, children who played more with their fathers exhibited better emotional and behavioral regulations as well a lower risk of hyperactivity. Dads, teach your children self-control. Play with them.
Keep your promises and prove yourself reliable. A study published in 2013 repeated the marshmallow study with a variation. In this study, the children either experienced an adult who followed through on his promise or one who did not. Then the children were presented with the opportunity to wait with one marshmallow to get a second one or simple eat the one marshmallow. Those who had previously experienced a reliable adult practiced more self-control. They were better able to wait for the second marshmallow. Keeping your promises to your children helps them learn and practice self-control.
Practicing these five surprising tips will help your children develop self-control. And that self-control will benefit them for a lifetime. Isn’t that a great gift to give your children?
Researchers from Freie Universitat in Berlin Germany published some interesting findings about smartphones, self-control, and rewards. Specifically, their research revealed that participants who “had a greater total amount of screen time (spent more time on their phones and tablets) were more likely to prefer small, immediate rewards to larger, more delayed rewards,” especially when screen time was spent on gaming and social media.
In addition, participants with greater self-control spent less time on their phones while those with lower levels of self-control spent more time on their phone. Altogether, more time on smartphones, especially in combination with lower levels of self-control and a preference for gaming and social media, was associated with a preference for smaller, more immediate goals. Limited self-control and a preference for smaller, more immediate goals sounds like a formula to impede success, doesn’t it? After all, success generally implies a level of self-control that enables a person to persist through struggles and setbacks, delaying the immediate, easy reward, so they can achieve the larger more challenging goal.
The authors were not saying smartphones caused or led to less self-control and a preference for smaller, more immediate goals. In fact, I tend to think that people who struggle with self-control are likely drawn to the gaming and social media apps because they offer smaller, more immediate rewards. It satisfies their need for reward without having to manage the frustration of persisting through the greater struggles necessary for a long-term reward. The gaming and social media apps may simply reinforce those tendencies. So, the question is not whether a person should have a smartphone or engage in gaming or social media—our children will do that just like we do. No, the question is: how do we teach our children self-control?
Model self-control. Children emulate what they see. Practice self-control when in traffic, when in disagreements. The more children see you practice self-control, the more likely they will practice self-control as well.
Build a trusting relationship with your child. The more reliable you are, the easier it is for your children to practice self-control. Follow through on your word. Do what you promise. Build a reputation as trustworthy and your children will likely grow in self-control.
Give your children the opportunity to wait—it’s a gift. Receiving everything immediately will hamper your children’s development of self-control. Learning that “good things come to those who wait” and “effort over time contributes to success” can promote the development of self-control. Teach your child the art of waiting.
Encourage self-control practices. When you see your children getting upset, present them with ideas that promote self-control. For instance, you could encourage them to soothe themselves: “Take a moment to pull yourself together and we can talk about it then,” Or “Take a deep breath and calm down so you can manage this better.” “I wonder how your friend feels about this?” can offer them the opportunity to take a different person’s perspective, which will help them develop self-control. On the other hand, “How does this decision fit into your goals?” encourages them to keep their priorities and goals in mind as they move through the world. This, too, will help them develop self-control. Each time you encourage your children to soothe themselves, consider another person’s perspective, practice self-awareness, or keep goals and values in mind you help them grow in self-control. (For more ideas, read Teach Your Child Self-Control.)