For a long time, professionals told us to increase our children’s self-esteem to improve their grades. The logic made sense: if my child has high self-esteem, she will be more confident, more likely to have a growth mindset, and more likely to persevere despite failure, so she will speak up in school and work hard and get good grades. However, what researchers found was that interventions to boost self-esteem were not effective on improving school performance (Baumeister, 2015). Kids with high self-esteem were more likely to have the following thought process: I’m already great. Why try to improve?
Instead of self-esteem, the researchers found that focusing on self-control had a large effect on school performance. Students with high self-control consciously work to break bad habits and create good ones (Baumeister, 2015). They are proactive – they avoid compromising situations so that their self-control is not tested (such as not having ice cream in the house at all so it is not even an option).
The night before a big test or assignment is due, some students will pull an all-nighter in order to be prepared for the next day. While forcing yourself to stay awake all night and then go to school may seem like good self-control, social psychologist and author of Willpower Roy Baumeister disagrees. Someone with high self-control, Baumeister argues, would not be in that position. He would have planned ahead and finished the assignment early instead of waiting until the last minute.
That is a really interesting point in our society that respects and admires people who work long hours into the night and “never sleep”. It forces us to ask the question, so are those people just not efficient? Are they simply procrastinating? Why do we glorify staying up so late? Why do we make fun of, and therefore dismiss, the “over-achievers” who get everything done on time or even early? We admire people who appear to be working hard at the last minute, but do not reward (to the same degree) those who exhibit self-control. Because of this preference, we encourage our children to develop the wrong skills!
So how do we teach our children to have self-control? The proper development of executive functions, good habits, and an appreciation for delayed gratification are three areas to focus on.
Since it is summer, here are a few suggestions you can do while out of school:
- Work on your posture. Every time you notice yourself slouching, straighten your back. That’s it. Baumeister’s research showed this simple act improved self-control.
- Practice delayed gratification by doing your own version of the marshmallow test. Teach your child strategies to help her cope with not getting what she wants right away. For instance, reframe the temptation – visualize the marshmallows as clouds says the inventor of the marshmallow test, Walter Mischel (2015). Sing a song about the temptation. Turn the temptation into a picture. Imagine the temptation is not as good as it actually is.
- Playing video games can also help with delayed gratification: while playing video games, you keep a goal in mind and focus your attention on achieving that goal (Mischel, 2015).
- Ask your children to set a goal for the summer, such as to read 20 books, to finish the math packet in July, to be able to swim 10 more laps in the pool. Have your child keep track of her progress every day (Epstein, 2014). What percentage of her goal has she accomplished today? Make a chart to show progress.
- Practice writing with your opposite hand, increasing the amount of time you spend writing with your opposite hand every day (Robertson, 2014).
- Meditate: meditation helps people effectively use their executive functions (Mischel, 2015).
Self-control is a muscle (Baumeister, 2015). The more you exercise it, the more you can use it. And the research shows that those of us with better self-control do better in school and in our careers.
Baumeister, R. (2015). Building character and resilience for more successful students: Self-esteem or self-control? The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Raise Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect. Boston: Learning and the Brain.
Epstein, J. (2014). Self-control is the key to success: John Tierney and Roy Baumeister on willpower. reason.com
Mischel, W. (2015). How mind and brain enable self-control: Marshmallows and beyond. The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Raise Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect. Boston: Learning and the Brain.
Robertson, C. (2014). 10 simple exercises that will increase your willpower! willpowered.com