“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 our
self-discipline later in life. (If you haven't read it yet, you'll want to start
with yesterday's 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-discipline? 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 apparently never conducted the Marshmallow
test with French kids, so there's no evidence that they'd do better on it than
American kids. And even if they did, we wouldn't know what part of French parenting
caused it. Finally, since there are no studies asserting that French adults are
more self-disciplined than American adults, the whole idea is clearly suspect!
But I do think Druckerman has a point about waiting, which I'll explain.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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!
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.
And permissiveness doesn't encourage self-discipline because the child doesn't
feel a need to stop herself. Setting a limit 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
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.