Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel conducted a famous study of preschool children and their ability to exercise self-control in the 1960s. The study became known as the Marshmallow Test.
In the study, Mischel invited each child participant to choose a reward. The choice was to receive one treat —such as a marshmallow — immediately, or two treats 20 minutes later.
I watched with amazement as the seeds sprouted, grew taller than I could reach, and blossomed into flowers larger than my head.
Kids under four years old had no ability to wait. The older children, who demonstrated the ability to wait, did so by devising methods of distraction to resist temptation and manage internal conflict and stress. For example, some sang, others talked to themselves — and some looked away.
Twenty years later, Mischel conducted a follow-up study of the kids who had participated in his original Marshmallow Test. What he found was remarkable. The preschoolers who postponed gratification in order to receive two treats instead of one were more successful in school and in life than those kids who chose to receive one treat.
Some kids seem to naturally possess better self-control than others. I see a difference in my own kids.
But most children can learn self-control.
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Parents who take the time to help a child learn self-control invest in returns for their children that include greater intelligence, self-reliance, self-confidence, self-motivation, follow-through, focus, and rational thinking skills. These will pay off for a lifetime.
Fun activities a parent can do with their child to develop a child’s self-control include the following.
Arts and Crafts
In this age of ever-present screens, young children can still benefit from learning to color between the lines in coloring books. Among other things, using crayons to add color to line drawings helps develop focus, planning skills, and follow-through. As children grow older, they can still benefit from coloring with crayons, as well as paint-by-number — they can even use books that teach them to draw. When a child is beginning any of these activities, it helps them to have a parent work alongside them to show them how it works.
My kids and I have spent hours having fun with modeling clay, using our imagination to mold the clay into different shapes.
A visit to a local craft store opens the door to a variety of simple crafts that a parent and child can do together.
As soon as toddlers can sit up on their own, they can benefit from simple puzzles, such as those that match squares, circles, and triangles together. As kids get older, they can work more challenging jigsaw puzzles.
Parents who put a puzzle together with their child are engaging in quality time together in which they can talk about things of common interest. Puzzles also help develop problem-solving and planning skills, as well as self-confidence.
Assembling jigsaw puzzles on a board I had left over from a project around the house, our family works the puzzles on a dining table. We put the puzzle out of the way when we want to take a break from it.
When I was four years old, daycare was at Grandma’s house. Grandma would take me out to her small vegetable garden in the summertime. She’d give me a small shovel and some sunflower seeds. I’d dig holes, plant the seeds, and then water them a few times a week. I watched with amazement as the seeds sprouted, grew taller than I could reach, and blossomed into flowers larger than my head.
If you don’t have ground to plant in, consider using pots or small planters on the patio. Another option is sprouting seeds for use in salads and sandwiches.
Gardening helps children learn that work doesn’t always produce immediate results. It requires planning and follow-through, and the ability to delay gratification.
Card and Board Games
The popular card and board games you may have played as a kid still have value today. The fast pace and constant stimulation of electronic games can’t prepare a child for success in the same way a card or board game can.
Some of the greatest accomplishments a person can achieve in life require the kinds of skills developed in games like Monopoly, Clue, checkers, Old Maid, and Rook. To win at these games, a child needs to develop skills in strategic thinking, problem solving, focus, and concentration — all of which contribute to greater self-control.
Consider starting a hobby with your child collecting things of common interest. The process of inspecting items for collection and cataloging them increases focus, the ability to delay gratification, and problem-solving skills.
Some collections can begin with little or no investment, such as collecting rocks or sea shells, or pressing and drying flowers and tree leaves. A small investment can get you and your child into collecting sports cards or postage stamps. More ambitious parents and children might enjoy collecting coins or antiques.
“A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28). The time you invest in helping your child improve their capacity for self-control is an investment in their present happiness and future success.
Jon Beaty, life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”