How Do You Teach Self-Control to Your Children?

"Nothing makes it easier to resist temptation than a proper bringing-up, a sound set of values - and witnesses."  ~ Franklin P. Jones

If you haven’t heard of the Marshmallow Test, here’s how it goes:  A 4 to 6 year old is given the choice to either eat a marshmallow instantly or wait and receive two marshmallows instead of one.  The child is then left alone with the temptation and the decision.

In the 60s Stanford study, children who ate the marshmallow in 3 minutes or less had the least self-control and in future, poorer outcomes overall from lower SAT scores to less stable relationships to lower career success and poorer health.  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 confirm that self-control is one of the strongest factors for future success. Though every child has their natural tendencies toward patience or rowdy demands, self-regulation is a learned skill.  It has to do with being able to step back, weigh the choices and consequences, then make good decisions.  Linking effort with reward is key to teaching your children self-control and perseverance.

Six Rewarding Tips for Parents

1. Kiddie Extortion, No Way!

Don’t cave into whiny demands and offer a reward for measly effort, or no effort at all.  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 it’s a great temptation to give them anything they want to stop the unwanted behavior.  A better choice is to remove your child from the situation and give him or her some time alone to reflect and calm down. Tell him to take a deep breath and then another one. Once they have calmed down, let them know how you expect them to behave and give them another chance to succeed.

2. Set Reasonable Expectations and Consequences. 

Be consistent.  When children understand what behaviors are expected of them, they are more likely to do them.  Simple lessons on delayed gratification include cleaning their rooms before getting screen time or no loans until payday when it comes to allowance.

3. Not All Rewards are Objects. 

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.  Notice when your child has done something wonderful.  Say so loud and clear!

4. There is No Such Thing as Failure. 

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 he will get there.  If you see that your child isn’t up to the task of finding the solution or completing the proposed project, gently suggest 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 to let them know there are many solutions to any situation.  There is no such word as failure unless you give up.  Choosing to stop and try something else is not failure, but part of the creative process that often leads to better solutions.

5. Children Learn Best Through Play. 

Jellybean Hide & Seek:  My sister, Marisa, came up with this game to teach my 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 team work.  The kids then have the option of saving the jellybeans or eating them immediately.  Alessio, who is 3, 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.

6. Let your Children Make Decisions. 

Though we parents would often like to step in and force our children to delay that marshmallow and NOW! - it’s good to step back from time to time and let your child lead.  Good decision-making takes practice.  Let your children know you have confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and very often they will.


Princess Ivana