Helping Children Succeed—Without the Stress

Teaching self-control is proven to be much more effective than tutoring and advanced classes.

Students meditate during Mindful Studies class at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon. (Gosia Wozniacka / AP)

In the now-famous “marshmallow” experiments, researchers at Stanford tested preschoolers’ self-control and ability to delay gratification by sitting them in a room alone with a tempting treat and measuring how long they were able to wait.

Years later, those kids who resisted temptation the longest also tended to have the highest academic achievement. In fact, their ability to delay eating the marshmallow was a better predictor of their future academic success than their IQ scores.

Further research has shown that self-control also correlates highly with greater stress tolerance and concentration abilities, as well as increased empathy, better emotion regulation, and social competence. This is true across the age spectrum: From preschoolers to teenagers, kids who can regulate their own feelings and behavior are better able to stay focused on their goals and maintain positive connections with others.

Essentially, self-control underlies both academic achievement and interpersonal finesse, both of which contribute to success in life.

While parents who hope that their children will be high-achievers often focus on tutoring, advanced classes, and more study time, the research on self-control suggests that a “backdoor” approach may be more likely to succeed and that it’s also better for kids than the high-pressure path many kids feel compelled to take by well-meaning parents and educators.

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.)

Some parents may see this backdoor approach, with less striving and more engagement, as desirable but naive (or just naive): If they stand down from the achievement arms race while their neighbors continue shuttling their own kids to coding seminars, specialized tutors, and AP classes, won’t their kids lose out in this ever-more competitive environment?

Parents may have a hard time seeing the value in, say, letting their teen who loves clothes take a sewing class instead of chemistry tutoring (“How will sewing help them get into college?”). But for this child, the sewing class offers much more than it seems on the surface: sewing skills, yes, but also the chance to be creative, self-directed, and focused on a goal of their own choosing.

This article has been excerpted from Erica Reischer’s new book, What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive.