Tarnya Davis | Self-control

The ‘marshmallow experiment’ involved experimenters telling four-year-olds they could eat a marshmallow now but, if they still had it in 15 minutes, they could have two. 

Researchers followed these children as they grew, and those kids who had the self-control to delay gratification did better in many aspects of life compared with those who didn’t. A study of 1000 children in New Zealand found the same thing – that the ability to exercise self-control had the best outcomes for health, avoidance of addictions, reduced criminal activity and more wealth. 

Author Karen Young, in her article on self-control, defines it as the ability to manage emotions and behaviours in order to achieve a long-term goal.  As adults we notice the impact of self-control on our lives (diet, exercise, savings, work, study, healthy relationships). Self-control is what we want our children, with their growing adolescent brains, to be able to exhibit in the face of risky choices. 

How do we encourage the skill in our children?  First, by providing a safe and peaceful family environment, a child has a greater chance of growing their frontal lobe well and developing the skill of restraint. Allow children the chance to make choices and develop this hand-brake part of their brains and practice the skill. Giving them chores is practicing delayed gratification and self-control skills, and finally engaging them in thinking about the consequences of today’s decisions for one’s future self. 

How many marshmallows did you have? 

Tarnya Davis is a clinical and forensic psychologist and principal of NewPsych Psychologists.