The Self-Disciplined Child

by stephen kosnar

Around the late 1960’s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment on 4-year-old children. He presented them with a treat (e.g., a marshmallow) and gave them the option of eating it as soon as they wanted, or if they chose to wait around 15-20 minutes, they would be rewarded with an additional marshmallow. The study revealed an interesting outcome. Children who were able to delay gratification and wait for the reward grew up to be more dependable, have higher SAT scores, have increased social competence, and have lower drug use.

Over 30 years since Mischel’s initial study, experts still expound on the importance of a child’s ability to deny gratification—in other words to be self-disciplined. Robert Brooks, author of the book, “Raising a Self-Disciplined Child,” released last year, says, “When self-discipline is effectively learned during childhood, there is a greater likelihood of successful coping and accomplishment in adulthood.”

Upon hearing about the Marshmallow Test, I couldn’t help but run my own trial with my 3-year-old daughter Eileen. I placed a symmetrical popcorn puff in front of her and explained that she could eat it right away if she wanted, or if she

waited until I came back from doing something in the other room, I would give her a second piece. “Two pieces?” she asked. There was an implicit only in her voice, and I realized perhaps I needed to factor in treat inflation since the 1960’s. “How about three?” I offered. Eileen remained unimpressed. “Okay, four,” I blurted. “I’ll give you four pieces of popcorn if you wait.”

I left the room and returned after several minutes. Like a beacon, the white popcorn puff still remained in front of my daughter. Filled with pride, I knelt beside her and started thinking about whether kindergarten was really necessary before applying to Ivy League schools. I complimented her on her restraint while glancing at the popcorn. “Wait a minute,” I cried, noticing one puff edge appeared to be missing. “Did you break off a piece?” Eileen looked up and responded, “It was hanging, Daddy. So I just snitched it off.”

For parents like myself who realize there may be a few chinks in their child’s self-discipline armor, there is hope. While biology and genetics do play a role in determining

children’s levels of self-restraint, those levels are not fixed. In other words, children can be taught how to be more self-disciplined.

Billings clinical psychologist, Donna Veraldi, thinks it’s important to regard self-discipline as ongoing. “Self-discipline,” says Veraldi, “is the process by which you transfer your values and goals to your children so that they internalize them.”

As children develop self-discipline, they learn, for example, that responsibilities often need to be fulfilled before they fire up their favorite video game or begin texting a friend.

A parent’s role is crucial in the process because parents provide most of the discipline in the child’s early life, and they also serve as role models.

Veraldi adds that it’s important not to force behavior on children, “That’s not very effective in today’s society. It has to be something your child can learn and can adopt as his or her own and take with them.” The ultimate goal is for the child to be in control of him or herself.

Parents shouldn’t expect too much self-discipline in very young children, around ages 2-4, because at this age children are going through many different stages of development. It’s hard to be self-disciplined when you still have trouble holding on to your sippy cup. However, it’s imperative to get started early in helping children develop self-discipline—during the pre-teen years—because that’s when they listen to parents the most.

“By the time the child is a teenager,” says Veraldi, “much of your chance to make an impact on them stops. They’ve learned what you’re going to teach them, and they’ve sort of shut their minds down to you.” Teenagers, though, will use lessons they’ve already been taught during childhood, so it’s important the foundation for self-control has been laid in those years—before teenagers enter the adult world where the risks for someone without self-discipline are high.

In addition to getting an early start, parents need to be aware that some parenting techniques are more effective than others when nurturing self-discipline. In particular, parents should be aware of how they discipline their children. Robert Brooks says, “Adults must keep in mind that discipline derives from the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process. As a form of education, children should not associate discipline with intimidation, humiliation, or embarrassment.” When parents involve their children in making decisions, rules and punishments, the child is being exposed to discipline as part of an educational process.

Diana Baumrind, a psychologist, researched parenting styles and concluded that authoritarian disciplining, where parents demand obedience and use phrases like “because I said so”, is less effective than a style where parents set limits while also engaging and showing unconditional love for their children.

Furthermore, parents should consider that there appear to be gender differences in self-discipline among children. One study using 8th graders showed that girls are more self-disciplined than boys. (The study concluded that his may account for girls having higher GPA averages than boys, yet girls do not possess higher IQs and score slightly lower than boys on standardized tests.) Therefore, parents of boys shouldn’t be discouraged if they notice Tommy using the living room furniture as a jungle gym while Susie is sitting quietly reading Cinderella books to her favorite stuffed animal. Boys may simply require more energy with regard to self-discipline, and parents may also find it important to utilize a gender appropriate motivation.

After mentoring both boys and girls, educational innovator, Arvin Vohra, believes boys, who tend to have more self-confidence than girls, respond better to direct challenges and competition. So a parent might say to a boy, “There’s no way you can clean up your room before I get your lunch ready.”

Vohra acknowledges there are exceptions to gender-specific motivations, but he has found girls often need more encouragement and less confrontation than boys. In other words, a parent might say to a girl, “You did such a great job of picking up your clothes in the bathroom yesterday. You’ve never done that before. Do you think you could clean up all of your clothes and toys in your room before we read books tonight?”

For both boys and girls, experts believe it’s important to set up situations where children can see that good things come if they are disciplined. For slightly younger children, perhaps not fussing for an entire morning might result in getting to watch some television. Older children may be exposed to a musical instrument or sport, where consistent practice will result in improved skills and success.

To be sure, today’s children face a challenging, stressful world. Donna Veraldi has noticed a major difference in children’s personalities since beginning her practice in the early 1980s. “I think children are way more stressed than they used to be,” says Veraldi. “And they have more freedom and options.” She adds that children have to grow up faster and potentially can get involved in far more serious behavior.

In today’s world, nurturing self-discipline may be more difficult than ever, and at the same time, it very well may be more important than ever. Armed with a little knowledge and patience, however, parents may just find that second marshmallow is well within their child’s self-controlled reach. SFM