The A to Z of a Flourishing Childhood series explores what makes for a happy, confident and successful childhood. I write about what makes a real impact on children’s lives: whether at home or at school, when playing with friends or spending time alone? How we can set the scene to give children the best experiences for a good childhood so they become mature and fulfilled adults. The A to Z series is based on research evidence from child psychology and my personal experience putting this theory to the test in my work as a child psychologist.
D is for Deferred Gratification and (Self) Discipline
Not qualities which jump out at you as leading straight to happiness and you may even be thinking D is for dull. Isn’t Positive Psychology about pursuing happiness and creating wellbeing? Well yes but to get there you have to make choices and sometimes the better choices are the hard ones which are dull and difficult right now but necessary for results in the longer term. So for a happy, confident and successful life you need to be able to say no.
We know that what is pleasant now and so tempting, may not be so good for us when overdone, whether it’s doughnuts or watching TV, too much can have negative consequences and gets in the way of doing something more worthwhile. We used to think that success in life was down to intelligence, but we now know the connection is weak , and what really counts is perseverance. To stick with something you need determination and an ability to wait for something that won’t be quick or easy.
You may have heard of the marshmallow test, if you have skip this section. This important study showed the link between a child’s ability to wait, also known as deferred gratification and later success in school. In 1970 Water Mischel conducted an experiment with children in a nursery aged 4 to 6 years. He told them they could choose to have 1 marshmallow now or 2 later if they waited. They were left alone in the room with the one marshmallow in front of them. Most opted to wait but only 1 in 3 was able to wait the full 15 minutes. The children tried all sorts of strategies to distract themselves. In the end one third was successful. In a follow up in 1990 it was found that this group were likely to have achieved higher SAT scores. I can’t help feeling sorry for the little ones who only got one marshmallow and hope the disappointment didn’t hang around too long.
More recently, Angela Duckworth has been researching what she calls grit, that ability to keep moving towards a goal when things get tough over a period of time. The other factor she sees as equally important is self-control which is managing the minute by minute temptations. Between them grit and self-control cover the long haul and the short term self-management. She looked at college students to see what impact grit had on their results. She compared their scores on a Grit questionnaire with their Sat scores and found that at any SAT score level those with higher Grit scores performed better in their degree studies.
So how can we help children develop their ability to make good choices and stay on track? No one is sure how much of this is down to genetics and how much is experience, but we can assume both are involved. Studies into nature versus nurture tend to come up with a split of around 60% nature and 40% nurture e.g. intelligence, happiness. While this suggests there are innate differences much can be done to boost what you have. Here are some possibilities:
Being able to wait has several aspects which include being able to keep something in mind, being able to consider what will happen in the future when you get to that goal and managing temptation.
- Talk about the future. You can’t start planning ahead unless you keep the future in mind. The younger the child, the shorter the time scale obviously, but establishing the habit of looking ahead is essential to discover what you want to happen and why.
- Set small goals. Have high aspirations and aim high but focus on action. What to do each step of the way. The difference between dreams and aspirations, is that one stays in the head the other involves movement.
- Encourage anticipation: if something is special it gains value by being waited for, talking about the desired object or event and how the experience will be helps children cast their mind forward.
- Savour the important in that moment of experience to both make it last and to really enjoy every aspect. If you have never tried mindful eating then pick up something you will relish and try this
- Treasure and value experiences. Believing that you can make something valuable happen requires digging deep. When you have a store of treasured experiences you can draw on them to remind yourself that you can. For children we need to plant those golden seeds which will grow into a strong self-image. Positive and specific praise creates that store of self-knowledge until children are mature enough to reflect for themselves.
Sometimes you have to do what you need to rather than something you want to do. Managing and resisting temptation is an important life skill. Some children find it easier than others; the quiet reflective child has an inbuilt pause button while the adventurous child risks becoming impulsive rather than courageous. Self- discipline is the key to making good decisions. So how can you help children develop this skill?
- Build on a child’s interests and skills so that the experience of engagement and success creates a firm foundation for setting goals.
- Match expectations to the child’s ability and pace of learning so that with a stretch using will power they can succeed. As children mature the expectations can shift but should still be tantalisingly within reach.
- Visualise success. People rarely make one choice over another if they believe they have no chance of succeeding. What will it be like when I get there and what do I have to do to succeed? People who only do the 1st part rarely get off the starting blocks.
- Make small step plans. There is a saying that the journey starts with a small step, encourage a child to swap hesitation for that 1st small step.
- Adapt as you go. Rarely can anyone foresee the path ahead and opportunities can be missed if you are wearing blinkers.
- Celebrate each step along the way before moving on. Being too focused on outcomes will mean you don’t enjoy the process
- Anticipate setbacks. What might get in the way; identify both personal barriers and external pressures.
- Explore together how to adapt and go around barriers
- Be more than a role model. Talk about why you do what you do. Children probably don’t give adult lives much thought. They assume you do what you do because you want to or because it is your job. Sometimes they assume children are controlled externally while adults are always free to choose so making that leap to understand self-discipline benefits from a little self-disclosure.
- Value self-discipline as a skill which delivers not one which deprives. See what is being waited for as a worthwhile decision. If no just means missing out on a present pleasure with no objective in mind it won’t stick.
These skills are fundamental to successful learning. Children who struggle to concentrate and work well in school are at high risk of underachievement. If you haven’t come across Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity and the Hidden Power of Character”. I can thoroughly recommend it. He writes about efforts in America to address underachievement for children growing up in poverty.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0