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Self-Control: How to Build it in Your Kids (or Students)

The Big Idea: In a classic test of willpower, psychologists found that preschoolers who could resist eating one marshmallow now to get two marshmallows later fared better as adolescents and in life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth. For decades the famous marshmallow test has been cited as evidence that self-control leads to success.

But there’s more to it. The nature of the interactions a child has with an adult prior to the test of self-control has a statistically significant impact on their ability to control themselves and delay gratification.

Celeste Kidd, Ph.D found in her research that when children interact with adults who are reliable in keeping the promises they make, their innate capacity for self-control triples while interactions with unreliable adults halves their capacity.

Through our reliable behaviors as parents, we can create the conditions in which our kids will develop the essential self-control they need to become effective leaders in their own lives.

How to Build Self Control in Your Kids:

START's 5 Step Leadership Development Plan can help you to frame your approach:

1. Commit to your Strategic goal to be reliable in order to build self-control. (This also serves to build the trust that is essential in building social and emotional intelligence.)

2. Consider Tactics to accomplish the goal such as only making promises you can keep and then keeping them.

3. To accomplish this requires a willingness to self Assess and then shift your behaviors.

4. Develop and implement age appropriate Routines such as a mealtime routine to avoid the desire for a snack right before meals , completing homework before games, completing chores before TV, and waiting to purchase larger gifts until birthdays.

5. Include the element of Training in the process, articulating what you’re doing and why, and provide opportunities to develop skills that are complementary to self-control such as getting organized, managing time, and being aware of the needs and perspectives of others.

Also valuable is to Teach kids how to re-frame their desire for immediate gratification in a "hot" environment using a process Dr. Mischel, the architect of the original marshmallow study, calls “cooling.” Cooling can be accomplished by teaching a child to think of something else, to put a desired object at an imaginary distance, or by picturing it as something else. For example, imagining the marshmallows as clouds rather than candy creates space and distance and cools down the intensity of the desire.

Bonus: Research shows that having a reliable spouse contributes to professional success – for both women and men.

The most effective parent leaders are able to assess and align their own behaviors to create conditions in which every member of the family (self, kids, and spouse) can experience who they are at their best. The conclusive, long term benefits of the work we do today as parents today make this investment well worth our time and effort.


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