The Power of Self Control
We are the hero of our own story.
– Mary McCarthy
In the hero’s journey, an ordinary person is called through extraordinary circumstances to sacrifice a part of him or herself in order to serve the greater good. In doing so, the reward or victory is self knowledge and a demonstration of character that the hero must then use in the world from which he or she came.[i] To be a Jedi Knight in the classic story Star Wars, the means through which Luke Skywalker defeated the darkness was by learning self discipline. Yoda teaches, “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”[ii] The modern day hero in all of us must defeat the dark forces of fear, ignorance, greed and ego. Listening to and following our truth when faced with difficult decisions requires practice and repeated trials. Temptation to stray from the hero’s path is part of the initiation. The hero typically fails in his attempts numerous times but persists in striving toward greater self control and self knowledge.
Though the conditions and circumstances differ dramatically, we are all working on our own hero’s journey. And in that process, we are all learning self control. From resisting unhealthy foods and drinks, to messaging or email checking, exercising, watching television, committing to social engagements, working, sleeping, investing ourselves in relationships or taking incremental steps toward a larger goal (home improvement, going back to school, or advocating for a cause), we have multiple opportunities daily to practice and model self discipline for our children.
We adults have problems with self control. So it no surprise that our children also need to learn to control their impulses and become self disciplined. Yet they are faced with a more challenging environment to learn this skill than we ourselves ever had to deal with growing up. The media alone competing for their attention has heightened the level of self discipline required to pursue goals. However despite the difficulty, if there is one skill to be sure and teach your child, it’s self control. Why? At the most basic level, when children are really mad, practice in impulse control will stop them from lashing out at someone through words or fists. But also for our children’s future, learning self control will help them achieve even their most challenging and meaningful goals. It enables a person to put off the temptations of the moment in order to work toward a larger cause that requires persistence and hard work. It also enables a person to be self reflective and make choices that are based upon a sense of ethics, integrity and an awareness of the impact on the greater good. The teaching of self control is character education. Pursuing higher education, being successful in a career, sustaining a marriage, raising confident children or making a contribution to the community all require setting long term goals and investing the time, energy and hard work necessary to achieve them.
In addition to those challenges however, there is an intrinsic personal motivation to learn and practice self control. That’s because all people need to feel a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence (the ABCs of motivation).[iii] Children often say in one way or another, “I can do it myself.” as early as they can communicate it. They want to exert their independence, take responsibility and demonstrate they are competent. Practice in self control will support them in achieving even their most challenging goals.
Because it’s so amusing and demonstrates the importance of self control, here is the story of the Marshmallow Experiment originally conducted in the 1960s by researcher Walter Mischel.[iv] It was popularized in the 1990s by the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence,[v] Daniel Goleman. Researchers at Stanford University studied four year olds and their ability to resist marshmallows. One mouth-watering marshmallow was placed in front of each child and they were told that if they could wait until the researcher ran a quick errand, they could have TWO marshmallows. If they could not wait, they could eat it, or could ring a bell while the researcher was gone. The researcher would come back and they could eat the one marshmallow. Of those four year olds tested, the group divided up fairly equally into one third eating the one marshmallow immediately, one third ringing the bell for one marshmallow, and the final third waiting the full time with the reward of two plump marshmallows and a grand future. All of the children were followed through their school years into their twenties. Those who couldn’t wait were more likely to do poorly in their academics, have discipline problems and not go on to higher education. The group who waited for the two marshmallows scored an average 210 points higher on SATs versus their marshmallow-popping comrades. They had higher GPAs, went on to university education, and generally experienced greater success. If you have five minutes, enjoy watching a news story in which they recreated the experiment.
What does this really mean for me and my family? If I conduct this experiment on my child and he eats the marshmallow, is he doomed? No! Of course not. But it does mean that you need to find opportunities for your children to practice self control in everyday life so that when the big choices come around – like taking or not taking recreational drugs, getting into healthy or dysfunctional relationships or working hard to get into good colleges – you will be confident that your children are ready to make those decisions responsibly. Becoming a skilled practitioner of self control can give your children more power and control to be the hero in their own lives.
So now that you are convinced it’s a critical skill for your children to learn, how do you make sure they learn it? The best way is to give children plenty of practice. No, I’m not proposing the marshmallow experiment in your home which could lead to a full scale meltdown since you would be a parent withholding treats and not a researcher. The experts of the Responsive Classroom program write, “If we want children to get better at piano, what do we tell them? Practice! If we want them to get better at reading or math or spelling, what do we tell them? Practice! But if we want them to get better at developing self control and responsibility, then what do we tell them? Be good! The step we too often miss is practice.”[vi]
I’ve asked the question of you – how do you teach self control at home? Next week Confident Parents, Confident Kids will list a series of simple strategies and also post your responses. You can send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org and if you include a photograph of yourself, I’ll include an illustration of your picture with your response.
[i] Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen, Switzerland: Bollingen Foundation.
[ii] Lucas, G., Gilroy, H. & Takeuchi, A. (2008). Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Lair of Grievous.” Lucasfilm Ltd.
[iii] Ryan, R. M., Lynch, M. F., Vansteenkiste, M., Deci, E. L. (2011). Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 193–260.
[iv] Mischel, W., Ebbeson, B. E.,& Zeiss, A.R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 21 (2): 204–218.
[v] Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.
[vi] Brady, K., Forton, M.B., Porter, D. (2010). Rules in school. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.