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Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?

“If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television, and you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.” - Walter Mischel

Have you heard about the Marshmallow test?  It's used to measure self control in young children.

In the book Bringing Up Bébé, Pam Druckerman quotes Walter Mischel, the originator of the Marshmallow test, as support for her conclusion that Parisians, beginning when they're children, have more self control than Americans. Today, I'll describe the Marshmallow test and why it's important for every parent to understand. Tomorrow, we'll explore how children actually develop self-control. (Spoiler alert: The Marshmallow test doesn't actually support Druckerman's conclusions about how kids develop self control, which she says comes from the French practice of training kids to wait for attention and follow rigid schedules.)

What does the marshmallow test have to do with self-control? Walter Mischel at Stanford found that when young children are offered a choice between one or two treats they like, such as marshmallows or cookies, they always choose two. Mischel then told the children in his studies “Here is one treat on this plate where you can reach it.  I need to leave the room for a few minutes. If you don’t eat this treat while I’m gone, when I come back I will give you an additional treat.  If you can’t wait to eat this one, that’s fine, but you won’t get a second treat. If you can wait, then when I come back, I will give you the second treat as well as this one.”

Virtually all toddlers eat the treat while the researcher is out of the room.  They can’t wait, no matter how much they want the second treat, for the same reason they can’t always follow your rules at home. They may very much want to, but their brain development isn’t sufficient for them to control their own impulses, even to meet a goal that is important to them.

Even once they’re preschoolers, most kids -- 70% -- can’t control their impulses enough to avoid eating the first treat, no matter how much they also want the second one. 

I admit that when I first heard about this experiment I thought it was a bit cruel, and I wondered why we read so much into it. After all, what if the child doesn’t like marshmallows, or doesn't WANT the second cookie?  And who cares if they can resist eating the first one?

But here's the thing. Once we find a treat the child likes, virtually all young children want the second treat, so the question becomes whether the child can manage his impulses in order to meet his own goals.  The treat experiment is useful because it shows us whether the child has developed his rational frontal cortex sufficiently to regulate his emotions, anxiety, and impulsive responses.  This huge accomplishment is an indicator of the child’s emerging self-mastery, which allows him, in turn, to master the world.  ( Here's an in-depth article from the New Yorkeron this experiment.)

Remember, 30% of preschoolers CAN control themselves enough to not eat the treat. Studies show that these four year olds do better in school, better with peers, and are rated by parents as more cooperative. They’re better at concentrating, at screening out distractions. As they grow, they’re more competent, confident, and happier. They even score an average of 200 points higher on their SATS, which isn’t really surprising given that they’re higher-achieving students and better at regulating their own anxiety. In fact, the marshmallow test predicts academic achievement better than IQ does.  

Forty years later the kids who succeeded at managing their impulses in the face of temptation are thinner, healthier, wealthier and more accomplished.  Given that their lives work better, they're predictably happier.  Clearly, there's something important here for all parents to understand.

The Marshmallow test isn't just about the ability to "delay gratification," as it is often described. As Mischel says, it measures a child's ability to manage his "hot emotions" so that he can make a given situation work for him and reach his goals.  It’s easy to see why the ability to control their impulses helps kids become more responsible and well-behaved.  A child who can regulate his emotions can control his behavior. 

So how can you help your child do this?

Some children may be born with an advantage.  Brain scans find actual physical differences between adults who were able, at age four, to delay eating the treat, and those who weren't.  But many researchers believe these brain differences are the result of children "practicing" -- using the brain differently -- during the first four years of life. The brain is taking shape in response to our use of it at all ages, and especially in the first five years.  And it turns out that we can even help children become more successful at the marshmallow task by teaching them simple techniques to manage their minds. Of course, we don't yet know how well these learned techniques for this specific task translate into more control in real life. What we know about the brain suggests that a child would need to "practice" those techniques regularly to sustain this progress.

So the question is, regardless of your child's innate ability, how can you raise a child who can manage her emotions, anxiety and impulses so that she can control her behavior to accomplish her goals?  We'll dig into the answer to that question in tomorrow's post. For today, just notice your own ability to manage your emotions and behavior, as well as your child's.

Tomorrow:  How to Help Your Child Develop Self Control

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