The need for self-control can feel like a tease at times and a bit of a pity, but its influence is spectacularly powerful. A landmark study conducted over three decades has found that the level of self-control children have as five-year olds, is one of the greatest predictors of their health, wealth and success as adults. Knowing how to increase self-control in children can help them on a path that sees them thrive.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a New Zealand study, has received international praise for the treasure trove of data that has emerged out of it. Researchers followed 1000 children from when they were born to the age of 32. Children who had higher levels of self-control at age five were more likely as adults to be healthier, wealthier, and less likely to have an addiction or a criminal conviction.
A little bit about the study. (Because it’s fascinating.)
The research has given us remarkable insight into the behaviours and qualities in childhood that will influence the course of a child’s life. The effect of self-control was profound.
By the time the children were adults, children with the lowest self-control (compared to children with the highest self-control) were more likely to:
- have multiple health problems (27% compared to 11% of their less impulsive peers);
- earn a low income of less than $20,000 per year (32% compared with 10%);
- have a criminal record (43% compared to 13%).
- have an addiction to multiple substances (10% compared to 3%).
And then there are marshmallows.
The findings on self-control from the Dunedin study are in line with the famous Stanford marshmallow study – an ingenious little test of self-control that was put to a group of 4-year olds in the late 1960s.
One by one, the children were told they could eat one marshmallow right away, or wait for fifteen minutes and have two. Fifteen minutes is like forever in four year old time, but as all small children know, two is infinitely better than one when it comes to delicious things. They tried all sorts of tricks to stop themselves from eating the marshmallow before the fifteen minutes was up. The most successful children distracted themselves – they looked away, played with something else, talked quietly to themselves, sang, and made up games with their hands and feet. Some even tried to fall asleep.
Follow-up studies over the course of their lives revealed that the children who were able to avoid temptation were healthier, had greater success at school and then in their careers, and had stronger relationships.
So tell me, exactly what is self-control?
Self control is about being able to manage behaviours and emotions to get to a longer-term goal. This means delaying gratification, controlling impulses, pushing through frustration, persevering with a challenge, waiting patiently for their turn, and controlling emotional outbursts. Most children seem to master self-control by the time they are ten-years old.
Why does it matter?
Children who lack self-control don’t lack intelligence. People who are impulsive and quick to take risks have wonderful strengths. They are often the ones who become our adventurers, discoverers, entrepreneurs, or inventors. They can also land themselves in a lot of trouble.
Self-control feeds directly into decision-making. A shortage of self-control during childhood might lead to a bit too much fun food at the party, more time gaming than homeworking, or a few too many tantrums. In the short term, the fallout from these decisions might seem fairly benign. Nobody’s world ever has ever fallen apart from a belly-full of cake on a Sunday afternoon. During adolescence though, the consequences of poor decisions and a lack of self-control, could be disastrous, both in the short and long term.
Adolescents who lack self-control are more likely to make decisions that close down opportunities and set them on a path to a more harmful lifestyle. These include decisions around their health (drinking, smoking, diet, sleep), money (gambling, irresponsible spending, choosing play over work) and behaviour (relationships, work, study, addiction, sex, leaving school early, unplanned pregnancy).
Adolescence is a time of massive brain change, designed to support their preparation for adulthood. Part of this readying involves experimentation and taking risks. Teens are wired to do this. It’s how they learn the skills they will need as adults, and how they find out where they fit into the world, where there edges are and the incredible things they’re capable of. Risk-taking is a healthy, normal part of adolescence, but teens with higher self-control are more able to calculate the risks and tell the difference between a dangerous risk and one that they can learn from and grow through. Self-control during adolescence is crucial, not only to keep them safe but also to steer their developing brains in the right direction.
The brain changes according to the experiences it is exposed to. When it is exposed to good experiences it will thrive. When it is exposed to less nourishing experiences, it will wire accordingly. During childhood, we can influence the experiences that our children are exposed to. We read to them, play with them and guide them towards safe experimentation with the world.
When adolescence hits, the experiences our children expose themselves to will largely be out of our hands. This is where they start to discover who they are and where they fit into the world. Their level of self-control at this stage is critical. It will play a huge part in driving their decisions, their experiences and the way their brain develops as they move into adulthood. Self-control in childhood, sets up self-control in adolescence, which sets up a brain for life.
Can self-control be changed?
Yes. Absolutely! In the Dunedin study about 7% of children showed dramatic increases in self-control over the duration of the study. These changes happened without any formal intervention. This is great news. As the important adult in your child’s life, you are in prime position to bolster their potential for health and happiness in adulthood by strengthening their capacity for self-control.
Building Self-Control in Children. Let’s talk about how.
Children aren’t born with self-control (though it would be excellent if they were – evolution, you listening?) Learning self-control takes time. It’s not all about willpower, but about learning strategies to make a situation work for them. Here are some powerful things you can do to nurture the development of self-control.
Create opportunities for them to take the initiative.
Provide opportunities in which they have to decide whether to exercise self-control or give in to temptation. A great opportunity to do this is with pocket money. (Self-control and money – who couldn’t do with a little more of that!) Suggest to your kiddos that when they save a certain amount of money, you will boost this by adding to their savings. Immediate feedback always sparks motivation, so make a visual chart or tally so they can see how they’re travelling.
Keep their environment as stress-free as possible.
Self-control comes from the frontal cortex of the brain, which provides the brakes for the impulsive, instinctive behaviours that are driven by the back of the brain. Stress effects the frontal cortex, effectively disabling the mental brakes. This is why when children are tired, overscheduled, upset or anxious, they might ‘lose it’. What they’ve lost is the calming, steadying hand of the frontal cortex to gently soothe any out-of-control responses. The more stressed they are, the less self-control they will have.
If you know they’re going to find themselves in a situation that could potentially test their self-control, help them make a plan while they are calm. If you’re heading to the shops, for example, and you can see that there could be a battle ahead for both of you, talk to them about this before you head out. ‘You might see special things that you really want, but we’re not buying any toys or treats today, okay? I know you’ll make really great decisions. Maybe if you see something you can come home and put it on your ‘cool things I’d like’ list, and we can talk about ways to save up for it.’ They will be much more likely to commit to a decision or a plan when they are calm, then when they discover the toy version of true and everlasting love in aisle three.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t always go to plan. Part of being a child means it won’t.
Children are experimenting with independence of thought and will. This is a great thing (though not so great if you’re on the wrong end of it!). As long as the boundary is in place, don’t worry if they don’t always hit the mark. The brain changes with repeated exposure to experiences. The more situations they are put in where they have to practice self-control, the more they will be strengthening it.
What would your future self say?
Any time you can slow them down enough to engage them in thinking about the future, they are strengthening the part of the brain that handbrakes impulsive behaviour. Encourage them to think about the different possible outcomes for their choices. ‘I know you don’t feel like doing any study – I wish study could be loads more fun – but your test is in two days. What will it mean for you next week if you don’t hit your books?’
Another option is to start thinking about their ‘future self’. ‘Imagine there is a grown up version of you – your future self. Your future self depends on the decisions you make now. What would your future self would want you to do. Why?’
Chores – so much more than getting the job done.
There is so much that kids will learn from doing chores. Having fun is important, but sometimes you have to get the tough stuff out of the way first. Self-control means having what it takes to put the fun things on hold for a little while until the must-do’s are out of the way. Having a few chores gives the opportunities they need to experiment with this. Let them be paid for some of their chores, and let some be their expected contribution to the household. Have another list of chores as a way to earn extra money if they need it. When they want to save up for something, they can decide – lots of smaller, easier, lower-paying jobs, or a bigger, more difficult, higher-paying one. Now they have their very own business! Entrepeneurs selling their very precious time and their very valuable skills.
Boundaries provide opportunities to learn how to self-regulate. If there are no boundaries, it is almost impossible for them to tell when they need to hit the self-control button. It’s important that they know where the edges are.
Teach them how to distract themselves.
Waiting for what you want can be so tough! Provide opportunities to practice strategies for waiting, but be realistic about the length of the wait. Young children tend to think more about what they want because they like the way it makes them feel. The more they think about it though, the more their capacity for self-control is stretched. It’s also stretched if they can actually see whatever it is they’re trying to hold out for. While they are waiting, teach them how to take their mind and their eyes off whatever they are waiting for. Try something like, ‘It’s hard waiting isn’t it. Let’s water the garden while we’re waiting for the cookies to bake.’ ‘Let’s go for a walk and think of some funny jokes while we’re waiting.’
Nurture their self-awareness.
The more self-awareness your child has, the more control they have over their behaviour. Help them to understand the things that tend to short-circuit their capacity for self-control. Explore what happens just before they make impulsive decisions. Are they tired? Stressed? Hungry? Bored? Anxious? The more awareness they have, the more they can navigate around the things that tend to skittle their capacity for self-control.
Encourage a regular mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that gets involved in problem-solving, planning, resisting impulses – all of which are an important part of self-control. Mindfulness can strengthen self-control by building their capacity to let thoughts and feelings come and go without acting on them.
Sometimes, self-control means an almighty push against a habit. Games that provide kids with opportunities to practice this, have been proven to strengthen self-control. Here are some games that were found to increase self-control when they were played twice a week for thirty minutes each.
• The Freeze Game:
Turn up the music and dance! When the music stops, everyone has to freeze. Dance slow to slow songs and fast to fast songs. When your kiddos get the hang of this, swap the rules – dance fast to slow songs and slow to fast songs.
• Sleeping, sleeping – all the children are sleeping.
In this game there’s a song that sends small humans to pretend sleep, ‘Sleeping, sleeping, all the children are sleeping.’ When they are pretending to be fast asleep, say, ‘And when they woke up – they were [lions]!’ This is their cue to wake and pretend to be whatever animal you have named. Let them choose which animal next. As part of this, they have to learn to calm themselves from super-excited to pretend sleep.
• Conducting an orchestra.
Each child has a musical instrument and the adult has a baton. When you wave the baton, the orchestra plays. When you put the baton down, everyone has to stop, shhh. When the baton is moving fast, they play fast, and when it’s slow, they play slow. Then, flip the rules. Stop playing when the baton is waving, start when it’s down. Play fast when the baton is slow, and slow when it’s fast. Oh so confusing – but so good!
And finally …
All children will get frustrated and impulsive from time to time. This is all part of them growing up and finding their place in the world. Self-control is built over time, and there’s no hurry for them to become experts. It is a quality that can be strengthened, whatever their age. Building small humans into healthy, capable, bigger ones takes time. The important thing is to provide the opportunities that will nurture them along beautifully, and guide them to be the remarkable humans they are all capable of being.
You might also like …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.
Really well done!
This is one of the best articles I have read, and it covers so many levels, or I can use it on so many levels from behaviour, to anxiety, to self control, being mindful, practising the skills in funs ways that they won’t even realise. Thanks so much, really really great article.
Thank you so much ! This is the very article I need at this moment it’s really proved helpful thanks a million!! 🙂
I Just loved!!!
I’m from Brazil and I’m pregnant right now… I can already imagine try it on my littleboy in the correct time.
But what touched me most, was the fact that I could realize that I’ve had a high level of self-control throughtout My life.
I could see myself, as a litllegirl, making nice choises.. giving up the temptations for a great achievement. Thats why Im so proud, happy and gratful of myself!!
Thank you for this incredible text.
Congradulations for your sensitivity.
I would like to receive more informations like that. How can I do?
PS: Sorry about my english. Its not so good.
Thanks Vanessa! I’m so pleased you like the article. There are links in the article that will take you to the research (look for the words in blue). There are many more like that on the site. If you are looking for articles on children, this link will take you there. Otherwise the best way to make sure you receive new articles like this one is to sign up for the newsletter, or pop back now and then to the homepage to see what’s new.
Thanks for this – my partner introduced time ordering to our 3 year old like this: present Adam, past Adam and future Adam. We had to go to the bakery to order the special bread for Friday night. Adam loves this bread but didn’t want to walk in the cold cold rain to the bakery. I said “imagine future Adam with the bread on Friday night and how happy he will be. Present Adam can make future Adam really happy by going to the bakery now to order the bread”. It took a few versions, but eventually present Adam put on his coat and shoes and walked all the way. On Friday night I reminded him how past Adam had made the bread ceremony possible. He was so happy I could have cried!
I love this!
How dies it work on husbands?
Thank you for this article! Many of these tips are ideas we promote on our nonprofit website. As we empower families to raise kind and caring kids, we can appreciate the merits of teaching kids self-control as well. Visit our site for extended tips on mindfulness, requiring chores, and discussing big-hearted feelings with kids.
An oldy but goody! I remember when I read about that study in college, I wanted to try it out on all my students immediately haha.
I’m glad you included playing games to develop self-control. Play definitely helps develop a kid’s self-control!
Thanks Amber! Play is a little bit of magic for all of us isn’t it.
That study is exciting — as a long-time researcher in the field of emotion regulation, I believe that teaching children self-regulation is the most important skill we can give them. I would also add not suppressing emotion to the list — when a child is feeling frustrated with having a goal blocked this is a huge opportunity to teach self-control. Self-control is learned in the midst of challenge.
I absolutely agree! Learning to manage the feelings that can show themselves when a goal is blocked is so important.
This is a highly enriching article. I run radio shows in Kenya on how to nurture personal growth and development in children. How can how contribute to your articles?
Thanks John – have sent you an email.
So proud that this longtitudinal study was done in my country, New Zealand! Great ideas in your article for developing sel-control in children…..needed in adults too!
Cushla you should be proud! It’s a remarkable study and it just keeps giving its wisdom to the world.
Great article! Another helpful game is “the quiet game”- you announce to the table of children, ok lets play the quiet game- Everyone stays quiet. Who ever is quiet the longest wins. On your mark, get set,go. At first there’s a few giggles and they only lasts a few minutes but as we continue to play the quiet gets a little longer. Its a good self -control game.
This made me smile! My son used to do this with my daughter (she’s five years younger) when she had a friend in the car and he wanted them to stop talking. ‘Let’s play a game you guys – whoever can stay not talking for the longest is the winner. Go.’
Love this article! My four-year-old has recently been talking about “self-control” (though of course not in those words). While we think self-control is important, it isn’t something we have been particularly focused on right now. It has been so interesting to see and hear her working on it. She got a little chocolate in her lunch box one day when we were at the park and she said “Oooh! I’m going to hide this over here so I don’t want it too much while I eat my lunch.” It was so interesting because I hadn’t given her the directive that she had to eat the lunch first. In fact, when I packed the chocolate, I thought she would eat that first. Another instance occurred when I was brushing her teeth (not her favorite thing). She took a break to spit and then told me “My body is like ‘agh, I wanna run away’ when you are brushing my teeth but I stay here anyways.” It was so cute. Anyways, your article is timely for our family as she seems to be ‘working’ on self-control on her own accord. It’s great to have some tips on how to help her! Thank you!
Meghan I love this! She’s really working on it isn’t she. It’s always lovely to see kids working on the important things – shows the greatness that’s there in all of them. Beautiful!
Absolutely love this article! Having a son with ADHD certainly is challenging and it’s great to know there are things I can do to help his self-control. At age 15 he seems to be getting better at it so I hope it’s not too late to improve these areas.
Thanks Ann. It’s absolutely never too late to strengthen these areas. At 15, your son’s brain is hungry to grow and develop. During adolescence, kids are loaded up with about a billion new neurons to help them transition from child to adult. The exciting part of this is that those neurons are looking to wire and strengthen. This is a perfect time!
I love that this article includes why and how to help children develop self control. I would add: allow children to experience the results of the choices, both positive and negative. It will help them learn for their successes and failures. If you want more on this topic-read Parenting With the End in Mind: Practical Guidance with…
Thanks Jayna! I absolutely agree – supporting kids in experiencing the consequences of their choices will help to strengthen them in positive, life-giving ways.