Headlines regularly warn of the tolls that the country’s increased emphasis on achievement is having on its kids: anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, even suicide. Students themselves speak poignantly of these effects. Carolyn Walworth, then a student at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an op-ed last year:
You learn that it is okay and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You go to bed at 1 AM every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night. But at least you have the weekends to relax and pursue your own interests, right? No, there's another surfeit of homework waiting for you on Friday night. We, as a community, have completely lost sight of what it means to learn and receive an education.
What if there is a simpler, less stressful way to help kids succeed? The research on self-control suggests there is: Instead of focusing directly on achievement per se, parents and educators can help children be successful by helping them practice and develop skills related to self-control.
For young kids in particular, imaginative play is an especially critical part of practicing self-control, since during play, kids set their own rules and are motivated to respect those rules when the game is fun. The enjoyment of the game provides the motivation to try.
As the neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang note, “To play school, you have to act like a teacher or a student and inhibit your impulses to act like a fighter pilot or a baby. Following these rules provides children with some of their earliest experiences with controlling their behavior to achieve a desired goal.”
Playing is not the opposite of learning: playing is learning.
For older kids, pursuing activities and academic subjects that reflect their own budding interests—rather than someone else’s ideas about what will best position them for a competitive college or career—is critical to developing self-control because the motivation to keep at it comes from a personal goal rather than the desire to please or impress.
Self-control is a skill that can be improved through practice, so kids given more opportunities will have an advantage. Kids vary in their initial ability to demonstrate self-control, but successfully practicing self-control begets greater self-control: The more we do it, the better we get. That said, being compared to others who are doing better, or repeated failures because a task is too challenging, may leave kids feeling inferior or resistant to trying anymore.
Crucially, this sort of practice is not about following rules in order to please others or avoid punishment. Self-control is ultimately about learning to control one’s impulses in order to achieve personal goals. (In the marshmallow study, the only downside to eating the first marshmallow was missing the chance for another; kids were not punished for eating the marshmallow right away, nor were they praised for waiting, but kids knew they would get a second marshmallow if they waited.)