Studies have shown that self-control is the single most important to determinant in academic success, more important than gender, economic class, race or even (believe it or not) IQ. Self control is defined as “deciding which of your desires you really want to espouse and then upholding them against the challenges of competing desires that you like less.” (12) In this “Musing” I’d like to tackle the topic of self-control with insights I have gained from Daniel Akst’s We Have Seen the Enemy: Self-Control in the Age of Excess. Here are the good, the bad and the interesting concerning self-control.
First, the interesting. The “marshmallow test” and other versions of it have demonstrated that self-control in even the youngest is an important determinant of success later in life. If you haven’t heard of the test, basically here it is: a tester and a 4 or 5 year old sit at a table. On the table is a plate with a marshmallow. The child is told that he can eat the marshmallow or have 2 marshmallows if he/she can wait until the tester returns to the room at which point the adult leaves the room. The children of this study were followed for years after the test and those who did not eat the marshmallow (i.e. those with better self-control) were more successful later in life; as adolescents they were “best adjusted,” (103) who were “verbally fluent and able to express ideas” (104) and they also scored better on their SATs when applying for college. The big picture of the study: self-control, even at a young age is important for success.
But now, the bad news. We don’t have nearly as much power over our destiny as we would like to have. Psychologists have run numerous studies that prove that heredity and environment undermine our self-control. With regards to heredity, another way that you can blame your parents for your problems, but that really doesn’t get you anywhere! Studies have also shown that the environment affects self-control and this environment is being shaped by niche marketing that appeals directly to you. For example, when I go on-line I see ads targeted for me specifically (i.e. ads for soccer equipment or books) which make it difficult for me to just say no.
Lastly, the good news. According to Akst, “freedom of choice is to a great extent a matter of degree and falls along a spectrum of possibilities,” so even though we don’t have absolute control of ourselves, we can take some steps to manage our environment in order to maximize our self-control. There are certain steps that you can take to develop self-control in your children. Below are some suggestions with concrete examples and if you come away with nothing else from this article, get this!
Practice it yourself as a model for your children. If you want your children to read more and watch less TV, then you should read and watch less TV.
Practical application: Make rules such as no video games or TV until homework is done and no snacks before dinner.
Talk about what self-control is and why it is important. If your children can understand what self-control is and why it is important, then there is a better chance that they will want to exercise their “self-control muscles.”
Encourage children to control their own environment to maximize self-control. Compulsive gamblers should not live in Las Vegas and in the same way children should not attempt homework with cell phones or the TV as a tempting distraction. Remove the temptation! For example, how on earth can a middle schooler be expected to concentrate on the complex dialect of Huck Finn when he/she is being interrupted by text messaging?
Make a “to do” list. Each day I write down what I need to get done and I find that it helps me to not forget and also keeps me accountable to myself. If I accomplish all the tasks on the list I also have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
“Trust and verify.” Your children are not mature enough to do all this on their own; they need you as an “accountability partner.” Don’t micro-manage your children but check-up on their progress. “What have you got for homework tonight?” might be enough to get them started, and then asking to see the completed math assignment to check up. Accountability is also good for adults. If you have New Year’s resolutions, for example, the best way to keep them is to let several people know about them; that way your reputation is on the line.
In sum, you and your kids have some measure of self-control and free will. You and your children can take steps to increase your self-control and school is a great time and place for this exercise. And a lack of self-control can be disastrous. One-half of all deaths in the United States are caused by bad habits that demonstrate a lack of self-control: smoking, drinking, risky sexual practices, and poor eating. Practicing self-control in school can help to make for academic success and, even more important, healthy living.
Please share any practical ideas you might have about developing self-control by responding in the “comment” section. Here’s an example from the Olson household. We are not the world’s greatest housekeepers, so we allow Gwen to have friends over every couple of weeks in an effort to compel us to get the place clean. This helps cut down on the CHAOS (can’t have anyone over syndrome). (This anecdote shared with the permission of my boss, Mrs. Olson.)