Laura and I have worked with lots of children in our clinical psychology practice over the years. Parents worry not only about the problems their kids are having when they come to see us, but also about their children’s long term emotional and physical health. They want to know how they can insure that their kids will be happy, secure, and successful as adults.
Unfortunately, there are no strategies that guarantee such idyllic outcomes. However, there is good news. Numerous studies have demonstrated that kids who learn self-control have far better odds of navigating life successfully than kids without this ability. Self-control consists of the ability to tolerate frustration, delay gratification, persist, and think ahead about longer term consequences of their behavior.
Studies have looked at kids during preschool years and followed them for the ensuing two or three decades. Children with the ability to control their impulses ultimately do better in school, have more friends, demonstrate less anxiety and other emotional problems, get better jobs, report greater happiness, and even have better health than those who struggle with self-control in their early years.
It’s no doubt possible to teach kids to have greater self-control during middle childhood or adolescence, but we recommend getting started early. Here’s a brief excerpt about self-control from our new book Child Psychology and Development For Dummies:
“It’s difficult to think of any other psychological competency that has this kind of powerful ability to predict future success, achievement, and well-being. What’s especially fascinating about this research is that this ability can be measured as early as the age of four or five and its influence perseveres into adulthood. You may be able to train kids to delay gratification as they get older, but we recommend getting started early.
You can teach kids how to delay gratification by making them delay gratification! For example, you consistently instruct kids “first you eat your vegetables, then you can have desert,” or “we have to clean up before we can watch that movie,” or “after you do your homework, you can go outside,” or “I know you want that toy, but I don’t have extra money this week–we’ll have to save for it.”
Think of teaching self-control like developing muscles. The more times you practice lifting weights, the stronger you get. Give kids lots of opportunities to learn self-control. They may not “like it” in the short run, but they will profit enormously over time.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase that this is an “instant gratification” culture. That’s probably true. But you don’t need to let your kids follow that path. Look for opportunities to let them feel a little frustrated and work through their issues rather than give them instant solutions. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.
Photo by Greg Livaudais, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 2 Mar 2011