We can think of self-discipline as the ability to manage ourselves to reach our goals. But what allows us to do that?
In Walter Mischel's Marshmallow experiments, he tested 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?
(And yes, these were kids who actually WANTED the second treat, and trusted the interviewer to give it to them. If you have questions about whether we can draw valid conclusions from this experiment, you'll want to start with our last post: Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?)
Here's what's interesting to me about the marshmallow experiment. If a four year old wanted the second treat, trusted the experimenter, and wasn't under too much stress, they could sometimes control themselves to not eat the first treat so they could get two treats. That in itself is intriguing. But what's really fascinating is that those kids grew into happier adults, both in the original study and in many subsequent studies.
I think that's because these children could manage their impulses to meet their goals. This ability is essential if we want to meet our goals throughout our lives, from getting along on the playground to holding a job. And adults who repeatedly fail to realize their aspirations in life are certainly less happy.
But this is only useful to us as parents if we can figure out HOW we can support our children to develop the capability to manage their impulses so they can meet their goals.
In the past, and even when Mischel first conducted his experiments, most people thought of "Self Control" as a result of "Will Power." In other words, some kids had more will power and that made them more successful.
But that sounds like some kids are just born with more will power. What's more, that's a moral judgment that implies that other children are somehow born lacking, because they don't have enough will power to be successful.
But Mischel's most important insight was that he wasn't really studying will power. He himself said that this experiment -- and all "self control" -- is NOT about will power, but about emotional regulation. He described the preschoolers who "succeeded" at their goal of getting more treats as being able to manage "hot" emotions well enough to resist the temptations that otherwise derail us from reaching our goals. So we are talking here about emotional regulation, not will power.
How does "self-regulation" relate to "self-discipline"? We might think of self-discipline as the capacity to manage our impulses so we can reach our goals. This capacity is developed in the nervous system from the repeated experience of giving up something we want (an impulse, or that first marshmallow treat) for something we want more (our higher goal, in this case two treats.) So self-discipline is a neural capacity that develops from repeated choices to self-regulate.
And what about our million dollar question? The good news is that -- YES! -- there are ways for parents to help their children make the choice to self-regulate, over and over, so they build brains that are better at self-regulation and therefore become wired for easier access to self-discipline.
But this definitely does not happen when we push children to exercise "will power." It happens when we as the parents create the conditions for our child to feel safe and to pursue their own goals. Those two conditions naturally support the development of self-regulation.
Let's look at how we as parents can do this.
1. The foundation of self-regulation is a feeling of safety.
The human nervous system is designed to keep us alive. That means that any stressor that causes enough fear shifts the nervous system into "fight or flight" or a state of emergency. In those moments, the biological imperative to survive takes over, and our reasoning capacity, including our ability to manage our emotions and behavior, diminishes.
All adults know this, since we have all found ourselves in a "state of emergency" when we were stressed, yelling at our own child. We were unable to exercise self-discipline to prevent that moment, even if we might consider ourselves to usually have sufficient "self control."
When we feel safe, by contrast, we are able to access our own inner resources, so we can summon up our self-compassion and sense of humor and stay calm. We can even seek out resources outside of ourselves by asking for help.
What does this have to do with helping our children learn to self-regulate? We need to start by helping them feel safe as often as possible, because we know that when they don't feel safe they are not capable of self-regulating. The more they feel safe, the more they have the inner resources to make the choice to self-regulate, so that over time they can develop the neural wiring for self-discipline.
2. It's our job as parents to teach our child how to help themselves feel safe.
Every human will have stressors in their life that will make them feel anxious at times, which means fearful or "not safe." We can't stop our child from encountering stressors, and we wouldn't want to, because stress is part of how we grow, or develop inner resources. But that doesn't mean we just expect our child to "suck it up" when they're stressed. That doesn't develop strength, but in fact is a stressor in itself, since the child feels alone and even deficient in managing the situation.
As parents, we support our child to learn to self-regulate when we:
- Notice when our child starts to feel anxious so we can offer support at those times.
- Cultivate our own calm at those moments, which helps our child stay calmer (co-regulation).
- Support our child to notice the stressor and the effect it has on them.
- Help our child learn what calms them when they get stressed.
- Support our child in stressful moments to practice strategies and coping skills to manage their dysregulation.
All of this wires the child's brain for more calm and faster recovery from upset. It helps the child develop the skills to navigate the inevitable stresses of life, which means the child becomes more resilient. In fact, if all you do as a parent is these five things, you will dramatically increase your child's ability to self-regulate (so they have more access to self-control and can develop more self-discipline.) But keep reading -- we're only on #2!
3. Everyone is wired differently.
No one has self-control when they are too stressed, but some children get stressed more easily than others. As parents, we need to notice when the stress on our child is too great, so we can offer support or even, at times, reduce stressors. Because we understand our unique child, we have the responsibility of making decisions that support them, regardless of what other children their age are doing. So, for instance:
- If you have a child who needs to move so they can manage their physical energy, you might not take them to watch their sibling's performance, if it means they will have to sit quietly for a long period of time. The other option, of course, is to go with another adult and find seating where you can easily take your child out of the theater as necessary. This approach has the advantage of supporting your child to gradually develop the capacity to attend such a performance, because you will be talking with your child in a supportive way about what they are feeling and what helps their body to calm down.
- If your child is highly sensitive or has a hard time reading social cues, maybe he's not ready to play with other children in a group quite yet, even if other kids his age can handle it. All those complicated group dynamics and social rules can make a child feel threatened and anxious, which diminishes their ability to manage their big emotions. Again, you will still be supporting your child to develop more ability to manage their own reactions and to read social cues, by offering them opportunities for one-on-one play and talking with them about their experience.
4. Trust is an essential ingredient of safety.
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. Wouldn't you?
When children trust that this is a friendly universe where their needs will be met, they feel safer. 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. Eventually, this child will trust that he will indeed get the treat he's been promised eventually, so he doesn't have to eat it this minute. And he'll be able to soothe his own impatience and worry to manage himself in stressful situations. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and foster a feeling of safety and acceptance.
5. Children learn emotional regulation from our modeling.
Parents who de-escalate drama and soothe their child's upset help the child build a brain that calms down more easily. Every time a child is soothed, her
brain strengthens the neural pathways to soothe and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow her to soothe herself.
By contrast, 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 and she needs to stay mobilized for protection and attack. She builds a vigilant neural system that easily escalates and has a harder time calming down, which makes it difficult for her to control her emotions and behavior.
So one of the most important things you can do to help your child learn self-control is to regulate your own emotions, so you can stay calm and patient with your child. This also helps your child calm down when they're dysregulated, because your calm convinces them that they're safe.
6. The self-regulation capacity of the brain increases with practice.
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. But there's a wide variation in how fast the prefrontal cortex develops and how well it works at every age. How do you strengthen the prefrontal cortex? Practice!
Some people have theorized that children who are "smarter" are the ones who are able to wait. But "smartness" is not static, and it is not just innate ability. It depends on being able to manage your impulses, which we know is strengthened every time the child CHOOSES to do so. Any repeated action strengthens the brain. Again: Practice!
The brain changes based on experience that is repeated. 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 that if the child 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.) That's why permissive parenting doesn't help children learn self-regulation. When children don't encounter appropriate expectations or limits, they aren't "choosing" to manage themselves.
7. Self-Control is CHOOSING to give up what we want for something we want more.
The prefrontal cortex practices self-regulation every time it CHOOSES to give something up (that treat on the plate) for something it wants more (in this case, two treats.) When they're young, children relinquish hundreds of impulses daily (grabbing the candy bar in the supermarket line, throwing their cup across the room, peeing on the floor.) These repeated experiences of self-regulation develop the neural wiring for self-discipline.
Why would any child choose to overcome her impulse when she wants to do something? Because there is something she wants more than her immediate impulse. That something is her warm connection with the parent, as long as that connection includes a sense of her self as valued and able to meet her needs.
Over time, as she makes constructive choices, she begins to see herself as a person who acts in a certain way. ("I'm someone who washes my hands before eating.... who uses my words when I'm angry... who does my homework.") So over time, what motivates her self-discipline (or what she wants more than her immediate impulse) is a sense of mastery and positive identity.
8. Self-Discipline starts with the Self.
Notice that the child has to make the choice to give up what he wants in the moment for something he wants more; he can't feel forced. This is SELF discipline, meaning the motivation must be internal.
(Alfie Kohn, with whom I agree about most parenting issues, questions whether "self discipline" is even a desirable trait to encourage. He defines it very differently than I do, however: "Marshaling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." That's not "SELF" discipline as I define it because the goals come from outside of us.)
So as a parent, "making" your child practice self control won't help the brain develop the neural capacity for self-discipline. Instead, find situations where your child WANTS to exercise self-control. For instance:
- Play "Simon Says" or similar games that motivate kids to manage their impulses to reach their goal.
- When your child hits a roadblock in pursuing one of his passions, express your conviction that "Yes, that's hard...Hard things are worth doing... You can do hard things!...You have done hard things before, like x and y.....I am right here to give you support while you do this hard thing!"
9. 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.
Note that permissiveness doesn't encourage self-discipline either, because the child doesn't feel a need to manage herself. Setting a limit with understanding in the context of a trusting supportive relationship, so that your child is WILLING to accept the limit, is what helps your child develop self-discipline.
10. Waiting is good practice -- up to a point.
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 Mischel never conducted the Marshmallow test with French kids, so there's no evidence that they'd do better on it than American kids. And there are no studies asserting that French adults are more self-disciplined than American adults. In fact, there's no research showing that either French kids or adults have better self-control than anyone else.
We also know that rigid schedules are the opposite of responsive parenting, and that responsive parenting is associated with healthier emotional development, and that emotional intelligence is associated with self-regulation -- so at least that part of Druckerman's theory doesn't hold up against well-established science.
But I do think Druckerman is partly right about the skill of "waiting."
We know that 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. There's an important caveat, though.
Waiting only helps kids develop self control if we've first observed all the steps above. In other words, if the parent makes the child wait for longer than she's developmentally able (not supporting the child), 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, 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 support the child so he can manage the anxiety of waiting. 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 he needs, and he's given no help to learn to wait.
Does he learn that he eventually gets fed? Yes, but not without some anxiety along the way, which won't help him learn to manage his impulses. And since he experiences himself as frequently struggling against his parent, he has no incentive to stay open to parental influence -- so why not take whatever marshmallows he can whenever he can?
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:
11. 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 to reach his own goal, 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.
So we come full circle here. Our job as parents is to support our child to feel safe so they can self-regulate to meet their own goals. A tall order? Yes! It takes understanding our unique child, supporting them to learn to notice their own internal state, and helping them learn to soothe themselves. Wouldn't the world be a better place if all of us could learn that in childhood?
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 since we know this capacity comes from learning to regulate our emotions, we actually know how they did it! 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
- Create Safety
- Set empathic limits
- Model emotional regulation
- Support their child to learn to notice their internal state
- Teach their child skills to soothe their nervous system physically
- Teach their child to manage their thoughts and therefore their emotions
- Support their child to pursue their own passions