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’t control the world, but we can control how we
think about 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.”- Walter Mischel
Can your child resist eating a treat when instructed not to?
The bad news is that unless we specifically work at it, our self-control as a four year old seems to predict our self-control later in life. (If you haven't read it yet, you'll want to start with this previous 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 temptation, at least some of the time.
That's important, because managing behavior is essential to accomplish our goals, from getting along on the playground to holding a job.
So what can you do to help your child learn self-control?
1.The foundation of self-control is trust from having been soothed. 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 jangly nerves to manage himself in any situation. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and reflect feelings.
2. Modeling is essential. 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. The most important thing you can do to help your child learn self-control is to regulate your own emotions so you can stay calm and kind 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 lift her down, she learns that she's incompetent--and that anxiety can't be tolerated or overcome.
4. Self control is made possible by 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? Every time we practice self control, we build those self-control muscles.
So what about Pam Druckerman's assertion in Bringing Up Bébé
that Parisian kids learn self control by being forced to wait for
attention and follow rigid schedules? Well, Mischel never conducted the
Marshmallow test with French kids, so there's zero evidence that
Parisian kids would do better on it. And if they did, there's zero
evidence about what part of French parenting would account for it.
But Druckerman may be half right, in that kids who get practice "waiting" do learn strategies for waiting. Practice does work to help kids learn patience, BUT only 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 his attempts at self-control.
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. 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--why not take whatever
marshmallows she can whenever she can?
And that's where Druckerman gets it wrong. Kid don't learn self-control from the parenting Druckerman describes in which the child's needs aren't taken into account. They learn obedience. And obedience doesn't give us the same results as self-regulation, because it comes from outside, so kids will eventually rebel against it. However, Druckerman describes French parents as giving kids lots of control over their own play and other pursuits. That does encourage self-control (see #6, below), so if French kids are actually more able to regulate themselves (which remains unproven) that could be the reason.
5. Life gives kids plenty of practice in waiting. Every parent knows that telling a child to "control" himself doesn't work. Children, like the rest of us, control themselves to the degree that their brain development allows. It's fine to encourage the development of self-control by empathically helping our child endure discomfort, but if they think we're torturing them, we're back to forcing obedience rather than encouraging self-regulation. Forcing a child to "practice" self-control will always backfire by triggering resistance and upset. It's a bit like training kids to get along in the cold cruel world by making them sleep without blankets. Luckily, life gives kids plenty of practice in waiting without our orchestrating it, and we don't need to torment our kids into developing self-control, because:
6. Children learn self-control naturally as they attempt to master their world. Kids learn self-control when they're motivated by something important to them: Playing with other kids requires them to manage their emotions. Baking cookies requires them to wait until the cookies are done. 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.
Worried that your child might eat the marshmallow? The good news is, some kids who don't have enough self-control to resist the treat at age four were able to develop self-control as they got older. How?
- Parents regulated their own emotions to stay calm and compassionate, so they could give their child help with his emotions.
- The child found a passion that he wanted to pursue, so that he had the internal motivation to manage himself in pursuit of his goal.
Self-control is all about learning to regulate our thoughts and attention. Once we can do it, so will our child.