Self-control is an important attribute in our ability to manage life. This may be particularly true in our current culture, with temptations constantly being put in front of our faces. Businesses spend a lot of money to get us to act impulsively, and any store you enter wants you to leave with something in your hand.
It’s nice to know then that research is suggesting that self-control may be a skill that can be developed, and by doing so, we can tap our potential to make improvements in the outcomes of our lives. And because self-control is a skill to develop, it also offers us the option to teach this important skill to our children.
One researcher began investigating delayed gratification decades ago. Walter Mischel wanted to find out what determined whether a child could delay a small reward “now” for a bigger reward “later.” In Mischel’s study, the kids could not receive the larger reward if they gave in to the small reward. Mischel found that preschoolers could independently exert self-control, and his research showed that the degree of self-control was and is predictive of grades and social competence during adolescence. Significantly, the preschoolers who delayed their rewards did so by spontaneously coming up with strategies to help them resist the short-term enticement. Some of the kids sat on their hands and others sang, talked, or looked away as a way to redirect their attention. Mischel also found that all children were better at delaying gratification when someone offered them distracting thoughts as an option. In other words, the kids were better at self-control when someone taught them a strategy.
More recently, a study at Duke University demonstrated that the degree of self-control predicts more than superior cognitive and social abilities in adolescence. It also plays out in many other factors and on into adulthood. The Duke study, which controlled for socioeconomic status and IQ, followed 1,000 children for 30 years. The study then examined the effect of early self-control on health, wealth, and public safety. The results showed that participants with lower self-control experienced adverse outcomes in all three areas. Those in the study with lower self-control had greater rates of health issues, such as sexually transmitted infections; substance dependence; financial problems, such as poor credit ratings and a shortfall of savings; and crime. Self-control, or the lack of it, can have a significant influence on many of the diverse areas that life entails.
What’s important is that the scientists involved in these research projects believe it is more likely that people with an ability to delay gratification—in other words, to exert self-control—are those who learn, adapt, and create new strategies to overcome temptations. This is good news. We can modify our environment and our ways of interacting with the environment to apply self-control when needed; we can model self-control for our children; and we can teach our children skills in order for them to apply self-control when needed. One simple example is to clear the house of junk food if your goal is to eat more healthfully. This one small change in the environment helps us as parents and adults live more healthfully, model adaptation, and teach our children in the process.
Try some new tricks if you want to tap your potential and teach your kids the skills necessary to exert self-control.