Eight Strategies for Teaching Your Children Self-Control
If you haven’t heard of the Marshmallow Test, here’s how it goes: A four- to six-year-old is given a choice: Eat one marshmallow right now, or wait awhile and receive two marshmallows instead of one. The child is then left alone with the temptation—one marshmallow—and the decision.
In the original 1960s Stanford study, it was immediately clear that children who ate the marshmallow in three minutes or less had the least self-control amongst their peers. But future follow-up revealed that they also experienced poorer outcomes overall, ranging from lower SAT scores to less stable relationships to lower career success and poorer health. Conversely, children who were able to wait the longest for the reward (and hence, doubled their pleasure) had equally consistent outcomes of greater success in school, work, relationships, and health in adulthood.
Subsequent studies have confirmed that self-control is one of the strongest predictors for future success. So how can parents help their children acquire this valuable skill?
“Though every child has natural tendencies toward patience or rowdy demands, self-regulation is a learned skill,” shares Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, who is a featured blogger at Modern Mom, founder of Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, and coauthor of the upcoming book A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year. “It has to do with being able to step back, weigh the choices and consequences, then make good decisions.”
Ivana speaks from experience. While she’s a modern-day princess, she comes from modest means and met her Prince Charming while on scholarship at Pepperdine. What’s more, she has worked with children for over twenty years, has a master’s degree in education, and is a digital strategy consultant. But Ivana’s most valuable source of education by far, she says, is her experience as a mother of two.
“It’s easy to read in a book or blog or article that your child should ideally have a laundry list of qualities, skills, and attributes, but usually, it’s much harder to cultivate those things in everyday life,” she admits. “As with most things you want your kids to learn, the key to developing self-control and perseverance is linking effort with reward.”
It’s never too early to start giving your children the tools they’ll need to be successful throughout their lives. As you focus on this goal, remember that self-control isn’t just about waiting; it also includes self-regulation and self-motivation. Read on for eight of Pignatelli’s tips on how to help your children learn self-control:
Say no to kiddie extortion—period. Picture this: Your three-year-old comes to you and says, “Mom, I want some-a dose cookies ova dere.” You know exactly what she’s talking about: the bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies your mother-in-law dropped off earlier in the day. Problem is, it’s almost bedtime, and the last thing you want is your daughter on a sugar high. You start to shake your head, and it starts: The trembling lip. The flushed cheeks. The watering eyes. You’re tempted to give in and hand over the cookie now before the crying or—heaven forbid—full-out hysterics begin. Don’t—be strong!
“Don’t cave into whiny demands and offer a reward for a measly effort at self-control, or no effort at all,” Pignatelli urges. “This is what I call kiddie extortion: Parents are held ransom by a fitful child until they, too, want to scream. Yes, we have all been there. And I know from experience that it’s a great temptation to give them anything they want to stop the unwanted behavior. However, a better choice is to remove your child from the situation and give her some time alone to reflect and calm down. Tell her to take a deep breath and then another one. Once she has calmed down, let her know how you expect her to behave and give her another chance to succeed.”
Set reasonable expectations and consequences. Before you start a family-wide campaign focused on perfect self-control (or bust!), take a step back and think through what’s doable and reasonable. Remember, a reasonable amount of self-control will look a lot different for your six-year-old than for your two-year-old. Once you have decided on goals for each of your children, as well as consequences when expectations aren’t met, communicate those to your kids.
“When children understand what behaviors are expected of them, they are more likely to do them,” reminds Ivana. “Simple lessons on delayed gratification may include cleaning their rooms before getting TV time or, for older kids, no loans until payday when it comes to allowance. Whatever you decide, be consistent.”
Remember, not all rewards are objects. At times, it may seem like your kids are zoom-focused on getting “stuff” as rewards, whether that’s a new toy, a favorite dessert, or even a special privilege. Remember, though, that even if they don’t verbalize it, your children also value the love, approval, and time you have to give.
“Never underestimate the power of praise, hugs, treats like a trip to a favorite park, or special time together as the real rewards in life,” Pignatelli urges. “Notice when your child has done something wonderful. Say so loud and clear!”
Banish “failure” from your vocabulary. If your child is putting forth effort but getting discouraged on a project, stop and give him a hug. Encourage him to keep trying and reassure him that he can do it. And if you see that your child isn’t up to the task of finding the solution or completing the proposed project, gently suggest that he stop, take a breather, and try something else.
“One of the most crucial things in helping your children learn the pleasure of effort is letting them know that there are many solutions to any situation,” Pignatelli says. “There is no such word as ‘failure’ unless you decide to give up. Choosing to stop and try something else is not failure, but part of the creative process that often leads to better solutions.”
Help them learn through play. Ivana shares that her sister Marisa has invented a game called Jellybean Hide & Seek to teach Ivana’s two toddlers the rewards of both effort and sharing. “Close your eyes and count to ten,” she tells them, while she hides groups of two jellybeans around the house. Each time either one of the children finds the two jellybeans, the treats are shared. Thus, the success of one child becomes the success of the other—a fun lesson in teamwork.
“The kids then have the option of saving the jellybeans or eating them immediately,” Ivana adds. “Alessio, who is three, used to gobble up the treats as fast as he could get his hands on them. Now he is starting to save some of his jellybeans to savor later.”
Let them make decisions. Though we as parents would often like to step in and force our children to delay eating that proverbial marshmallow instead of indulging in the treat now, it’s good to step back from time to time and let kids take the lead.
“Yes, Mom and Dad usually know best, and dictating the ‘right’ behavior can often save time, effort, and tears,” Pignatelli acknowledges. “But sooner or later your kids will need to navigate life without you calling the shots, and good decision-making takes practice. Let your children know you have confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and very often they will.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat. If your young child accepts direction without complaint and never needs further correction, it’s time to start worrying: She may be a robot. All joking aside, though, it’s a fact of life that children often won’t absorb new behaviors the first, third, or even tenth time you offer instruction. That’s why it’s so important to repeat what you’d like them to do and why.
“Especially with very young kids, you may not see any return for awhile,” Ivana points out. “Your child just may not ‘get’ why you want her to do or not do something. The key is sticking with it. Even if you sound like a broken record, talk through your expectations again and again. Seek out examples where you see self-control or self-motivation happening, and narrate why they caught your eye. Sooner or later, your words will sink in.”
Be a good example. “Do as I say, not as I do” has never been (and never will be) a valid parenting strategy. To put it simply, kids learn the bulk of their behaviors, habits, and attitudes from watching you. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re not invalidating your instructions with your actions.
“Believe me—I know that self-control can be hard for adults, too,” Pignatelli says. “If your kids have never caught you stuffing your face from the bag of chips in the pantry after you told them they couldn’t have any more, for example, then my hat is off to you! When you do make a mistake, be sure to acknowledge it to your children. I also suggest teaming up with them to practice self-control for both of you. For instance, you might say, ‘I know you want to go see the movie that just came out—I’d like to go with you! If you can help me pick up all your toys and put them away tonight without whining, we can go to the theater tomorrow.’”
“At the end of the day, remember that each child is different, and each one develops at a unique rate,” Ivana concludes. “Don’t use your brother’s kids, the students in your son’s preschool class, or even his older sister as a measuring stick for success or failure. Just be persistent and consistent, and one day, you’ll be amazed and impressed by just how much self-control and persistence your child is displaying.”
Ivana is the author of the upcoming book A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was cowritten with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.