Understanding Why Children Struggle with Self-Control

Children struggle with self-control, it’s a fact of life. Humans are not born with the self-control needed to live healthy and successful lives. Self-control must be cultivated, practiced, and valued. This blog post’s purpose is to illustrate the connection between cultivating self-control in children and success later in life. In addition, this post is a continuation on a series of posts on the topic of turning children into successful adults, inspired by my reading of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.

“The Marshmallow Study”

in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel completed a study that offered children a choice between eating a marshmallow immediately, or receiving a greater reward if they waited a short period of time. The study was designed to measure self-control among children, and determine whether or not their ability to delay immediate gratification was correlated with better life outcomes as they age (e.g., higher educational attainment, SAT scores, healthy body mass index, etc.). The study found that children who possessed enough self-control to wait the short period of time for the increased rewards tended to have better life outcomes, demonstrating that children who possess higher self-control are more likely to experience better life outcomes. A video displaying how the study was done can be found in the “Additional Resources” section of this blog post.

Why is self-control a character trait?

Self-control is the ability to resist the temptation to live a life that places supreme value on current pleasures, and instead work for the possibility of greater rewards in the future. Self-control helps a child to avoid the temptation to skip homework due tomorrow in favor of playing outside, bringing greater satisfaction in the present time, but will not better the child’s life overall. Self-control is what stops one from stealing, even though it produces immediate results.  People who have a strong character have the ability to hold themselves accountable for their actions, to resist temptation. Self-control is an act of cautiousness, that is, skeptical of immediacy.

What are the long-term benefits of teaching a child self-discipline? (Information comes from “Research every teacher should know” published by The Guardian: self-control and learning):

  • Learning outcomes are better due to a child’s ability to maintain focus and handle distractions;
  • Children who learn self-control are more attentive adults, possessing the skills maintain focus on the subject being dealt with;
  • Stronger verbal skills;
  • Better academic results (e.g., academic grades);
  • Greater social competence;
  • Better ability to handle stress, where individuals with self-control know what’s important and are able to maintain their focus on what they place value on.


How is self-control increased in children?

  • Modeling: Children learn from the adults in their life. If they witness their teachers and parents struggle with impulse control, they will likely struggle as well. If they see their role models practicing patience and avoiding impulsive actions, they will likely practice these same skills.
  • Practicing patience: Self-control is like a muscle, it must be exercised in order for it to become strong. Self-control exercises can be found here.
  • Reward it: When a child has practiced self-control, reward them with positive affirmations for their effort. Rewards can be material as well, but should be within reason.
  • Turn practice into a game: Children enjoy games. Learning self-control can be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Check out these ideas!
  • Re-frame self-control failures: Children are going to fail as they continue on their journey to become more self-disciplined. That’s okay, and it is normal. Every failure brings a child closer to future success.

Create an Environment that Promotes Self-Control:

Arguably the most effective way to promote self-control in children is to manipulate their environment to work towards their advantage. Every child has triggers that cause them to have lapses in self control. For example, some children may be so distracted by technology in the classroom that all their focus is placed on it, and they cannot control their behaviors otherwise. In this case, teachers can manipulate the environment (i.e., remove technology from the classroom momentarily, or place it out of sight), so that the children who struggle to focus with technology present are able to as a result. Manipulation of the environment gives kids who struggle with self-control a fighting chance to focus, and practice their self-control skills.

Additional Reading Resources: 


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