Nigel Latta comments on Self Control

Nigel Latta comments on Self-Control.

I’ve talked about this a few times but thought I would post an article I wrote a few years ago for the simple reason that self-control is an important predictor of future outcomes for kids. Fortunately, it’s also a skill that can be learned – so read on….
When you think about it, self-control is one of the most basic skills that we need to get through life. Self-control is what gets you through when your idiot boss tells you he needs that report by five o’clock when he’s known about it for three days. Self-control is what gets you through when you’re trying to lose a bit of weight and you see the best white chocolate muffins in the history of muffins sitting on the counter right in front of you when you go to pay for your trim flat white. Self-control is also what gets you through when your precious little one breaks the window with the ball that you’ve told them not to kick inside a thousand times.

Self-control is a very good thing.

Up until very recently though, we didn’t know just how good it was, and the story of how we found this out is almost as remarkable as the information itself. Way back in the early seventies a group of researchers at Otago University in Dunedin decided to examine every baby born in the city between 1972-73. All the parents brought all these babies in. A few years later these same researchers decided to follow up these 1073 babies to see how they were going at age 5 years. Once again all 1073 babies came back in and this time the things they discovered were so remarkable that the researchers wondered what would happen if they followed these babies for their whole lives? What would they find then? Incredibly, that is exactly what they’ve done for the last four decades.

The things they have discovered about the factors which influence our development through the lifespan are changing all of our lives. A few years ago, some of the researchers published a paper about the impact of self-control on children’s lives. In my opinion this was one of the most amazing scientific papers I have ever read (and trust me, I’ve read a few) and I also think it has really important implications for anyone who is in the business of making and growing little people.

What is self-control?
It’s kind of obvious at first glance but it’s useful to break it down a little. Fundamentally the ability to exercise self-control is about the delay gratification (which basically means waiting rather than grabbing what’s in front of your face), control impulses (so you don’t dump your popcorn over Mr Big Head who sits right in front of you at the movies), and reign in your emotions (so you don’t scream at your partner who went all the way to the supermarket and brought back everything except the can of pineapple pieces you actually wanted). Self-control is also a fundamental part of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance. There are particular parts of the brain that are involved in the exercise of self-control, and there also seem to be both genetic and environmental influences on how good we are at it.

What did the researchers find?
Before we get to that you need to promise me that you’re going to read the whole article before you do anything. If you just read this next paragraph and stop then you’re probably going to panic a bit and go off and start doing all kinds of mad stuff.
So read it all, ok?

Essentially what they found is that low self-control in children predicted all kinds of problems later in life. If you had low self-control as a child you were more likely to have problems with alcohol and drugs, become a teen parent, have financial problems, and have problems with your career. You also were more likely to experience health problems later in life as well.
Right now, out there in Littlies-land, there will be a parent who has broken out into a cold sweat having decided that their little person has very little self-control and therefore is now doomed to a life of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and crime.

So why would I burden you with this information?
Simply because just as that stuff is the bad news there is plenty of good news as well. Just like low self-control is bad, having more self-control is good. What’s more the researchers also showed self-control is something that can be developed over the lifespan, and those children who do end up doing better as a result. So if you have two children with low self-control then the one who develops/learns self-control ends up better off in adulthood.
This is important and so I’ll just say it again: Even if you have low self-control as a child then you can learn to develop self-control as you grow and this will have real benefits in your life. The big message here for all of us parents is not that low self-control is bad, but really that we can help them to develop self-control and the more we do that the better they will be.

How do you teach self-control?
So here’s the bit which is really cool, because the way that you teach children to develop this amazing, life-changing skill, is just by doing all those good old fashioned things that good mums and dads have been doing ever since children were invented. You don’t have to buy any special equipment or learn some special technique or learn special magical words. You just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.
If you think about the basic tasks involved in self-control (delaying gratification, managing your feelings, controlling your impulses, persevering, and being conscientious) it all becomes much simpler. All you need to do is help them to see the connection between those things and the payoffs, and then giving them plenty of chances to practice self-control.

Here are a few ideas to get you started… most of which you will almost certainly already be doing:
* Reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. This provides motivation to control those little impulses and focus on the longer term reward.
* Don’t give them everything they want whenever they want it. Make them wait for things from time to time. Waiting is a skill that needs practice.
* Teach them that sometimes you have to do things you don’t like (eg picking up your toys) to get access to things you do like (eg walks in the park).
* Praise sharing with their friends and others. This helps them to understand that grabbing stuff first isn’t as big a payoff as good times with the people you co-operate with.
* If you start walking up a hill don’t give up just because little legs get a bit tired. Push on and then make a big deal of the sense of achievement you get from doing things that are hard. The best views tend to be from the top of the hill in life, not the bottom.
* When they are old enough for pocket money pay them a pittance. You learn more if you have to save hard for something, and it means more to you when you eventually get it.
* Model all of these things as much as you can. None of us are perfect, let’s be honest, just practice what you preach as much as you can manage.
* Instead of telling them how clever they are, praise the effort. So instead of saying how clever they are for building a block tower tell them what hard workers they are and that the reason they are so good at building block towers is because they work away at and practice really hard.
* Learn that guests choose their biscuits first.
* Even if you are angry you still have to speak nicely to your parents. This is a skill they will need when they get their first job working for an idiot. Sometimes you just have to shut up and smile politely.
* Basically anything and everything that involves them reigning in their impulses and focusing on the bigger picture.

Remember that it’s a developing thing
It’s very important to remember that self-control is not something little people possess in any great amount. Most young children have very little self-control. If the block tower falls over many of them will dissolve into tears and tantrums in abundance. If they can’t have the dolly with the pink dress they scream. If you don’t give them the blue cup right now the world ends. All this is very normal. It usually takes about a decade for children to really master self-control in any meaningful way. Some of us struggle with self-control many decades down the track. It’s normal for young children to be impulsive, selfish, instant reward oriented, impatient and short sighted.
All these things are simply part of the journey from no control to having as much of it as you can manage. The ability to exercise self-control is important but just like any life-skill (eg juggling, lion taming, solving Rubik’s cube) it takes time and a lot of practice.

The really important thing here is that there is now some very solid science which totally supports all that old common sense stuff mums and dads have been doing forever. What’s especially nice I think is that we can now say with absolute certainty to our children that it really is important to let the guests choose their biscuit first, to share your toys, and to figure out some other thing to do when your little brother annoys you other than clouting him. We can say and know with absolute certainty that we are helping them to be better, healthier, more productive, and happier grownups.

And that’s the best science of all.