Life Series: Skills Everyone Needs for a Life Well Lived

What do early childhood development experts worldwide and authors of wildly successful self-help books on achieving success have in common?  Each identifies skills essential to happy and productive people. Acquisition of these skills begins in early childhood and is the basis for identical characteristics we require as adults. They are one and the same.

The following six qualities have been recognized as vital for success in both elementary school and the boardroom.

  • The following six competencies have been recognized as vital for success in both elementary school and the boardroom.
  • Self-control
  • Emotional awareness
  • Persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Problem solving
  • Communication

In each issue of the newsletter, another skill will be discussed.

In this first newsletter, we begin with self-control.

Self-control is central to everyone’s well being. Self-control is what stops children (and adults as well) from hitting others when we are not getting what we want and stops adults from eating an entire quart of ice cream at a sitting (well, at least, most of the time!)

Self-control develops as an interior function, beginning in infancy and early childhood. For example, babies learn to stop crying when they anticipate being fed – they can wait a short amount of time if they hear their caregivers voice reassuring them that food is on the way. Self-control is intertwined with the ability to understand and tolerate one’s own feelings. When we understand how we feel and can let ourselves accept the feeling, it stops us from having to put the feeling into action. Often the actions chosen to deal with strong feelings are damaging. We must be able to know how we feel and why, and accept our feelings.

Part of self-control is being able to delay gratification and tolerate discomfort. A fascinating study from Stanford University with 4 to 6 year old children from almost 40 years ago examined the relationship between self-control – the ability to delay gratification – and later school success. A tempting marshmallow was placed before the children. The children were told that if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the marshmallow, then they would be given another marshmallow. The researchers then followed the children through the third grade. The scientists discovered that the children who waited to get the second marshmallow fared better in school then the children who couldn’t wait, and were significantly less likely to have problems with behavior, drug addiction or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who gobbled the snack in less than a minute.

The ability to use self- control and to delay gratification greatly impacts our capacity for positive functioning and decision-making.

So what can we do to promote our self-control and the self-control of our children?

  • Self-control is like a muscle. It can be strengthened. Practicing self-control in one area will generalize to other areas. For example, researchers looked at self-control in adults assigned to an exercise group versus those not assigned any tasks. Those adults assigned to exercise groups did better on other tasks requiring self-control.
  • Stop and think about our reactions to situations before taking action. If we find ourselves reacting “without thinking”, try to plan ahead and anticipate a situation. For example, if we are going to have a meeting and anticipate difficulty or nervousness, we can practice in our mind how we will handle any stress that arises. Prepare things we might say – for instance, “I must take some time to think about that” – and remove our self temporarily from the situation. We can do this with children, too.
  • Develop some personal rules that help us practice delaying gratification.  With children, play games that require waiting and taking turns. Adults may plan for situations in which we know we have experienced impulsive behavior in the past. For example, write a shopping list and stick to it. If we feel ourself having an impulse to do something that may not be in our best interest, give oneself a “time out”. Time outs are not just for children! If we, or a child, lose self-control, it is helpful to note how we (or the child) may have been feeling. Connect feelings to actions, think about the connection, and keep in mind for the future.
  • Make sure to have good rest and good nutrition. One’s ability to exercise self-control is improved when we are rested and glucose levels are stable. Have healthy snacks available and get the relaxation and sleep we need. Studies have examined situations in which subjects had to complete a series of willpower/self-control tasks. As expected, performance gradually worsened as they moved from one set of tasks to the next. But if the subjects drank regular lemonade (i.e. sweetened with sugar), they performed better than people who drank diet lemonade (i.e. containing no sugar).
  • Make sure to do something enjoyable at least once a day. This helps replenish internal resources and allows us to better flex our self-control.

Dr. Michel, primary researcher in the original research at Stanford 40 years ago, today offers some simple advice on teaching self-control: “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner. We should say: ‘we see this marshmallow? We don’t have to eat it. We can wait. Here’s how’.”

What Dr. Mischel proposes is practice!!!

We used to think of self-control or willpower as being some kind of “moral attribute”, with “stronger” people having more, while others had less. But now we understand self-control as being more like a muscle. It can be overworked and tire out, it can get stronger with exercise, and it can be recharged after rest and sustenance.

for more information, read The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later or watch a delightful video