In her book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote about the changing shifts in parenting philosophies that happened in the 1980s. One of the most popular ones was the self-esteem movement.
At TEDx Event late last year, parent coach Heidi Landes explained that the rise of this movement particularly in the United States came about after psychologists noticed that drug addicts and criminals had low self-esteem. So, "we’ve been told as parents that we must instill high self-esteem [in our kids],” because it was the key to a brighter future.
Fast forward 30 years later, Dr. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues from the University of Florida, armed with decades of research on the matter, found that high self-esteem does not, in fact, prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in early sex. They did, however, found something that could help: self-control.
Aside from being less likely to indulge in drugs and vices, children who had self-control were more likely to be in good health, earn more and save more money, volunteer and give to charity, and be satisfied with their lives. Even when other factors were taken into account, results remained the same.
“Childhood self-control strongly predicts adult success, in people of high or low intelligence, in rich or poor,” says Landes.
“There’s even better news,” adds Landes. “We can help our children develop self-control, and there are surprisingly simple ways that we can do this.
“When we focus on self-control, we teach [children] that they are part of the family, but they're not the center. We teach them to think about others, that sometimes life is hard and that we have to do the right thing no matter how we feel even if we don't always get a trophy,” Landes explains.
Think of self-control as the ability to act and respond with reason in the midst of impulses. Self-control makes us get up in the morning to go to work even if we feel like wasting the day away elsewhere. It is the same for kids. Children with high self-control can set goals and can follow through, like being able to finish the day’s homework every day on their own. People with self-control are aware of the consequences of their actions and are therefore able to make right decisions.
So, how does a parent raise a child with high self-control? Landes gives these practical tips:
1. Expect them to be responsible. Raising a child with self-control starts with believing that your child is capable of managing himself and his urges. You can expect your child to wait patiently to talk to you and not interrupt when you’re engaged in another conversation. This also means you expect your child to act respectfully towards other people, not act out in anger towards others, do what he’s told the first time, and say "please" and "thank you." Also, for older kids, you should expect your child to be able to wake up in the morning by himself using his alarm clock.
2. Give your child chores. It’s one of the first steps he needs to know about being an adult: a grown-up has a lot of responsibilities (e.g. you have to work hard to pay your own bills).
It may be easier to clean up after your child’s mess even though you’ve told him a thousand times to do it himself. But he needs to learn that picking his toys is his job and not yours.
Landes shares this story. “I used to have my children 'help' with the laundry. Let me tell you; they were not worried about it. They knew if they wouldn't do it, I would. But now my children are in charge of the laundry. If they don't do it, we all have to wear dirty, stinky clothes.” (Learn how you can begin giving chores to your toddler or preschooler here.) 3. Have consequences. “We often hesitate to let our children suffer the consequences of their actions because we're afraid of harming their self-esteem,” says Landes. But, consequences teach valuable life lessons, which they will carry with them throughout their lives, she elaborates. “We cannot control the choices our children make now or in the future, but we can teach them that bad choices lead to bad outcomes.”
Here’s a tip when setting rules and giving consequences: avoid starting with “if you don’t,” says Madelyn Swift, author of Discipline for Life: Getting It Right With Children. You’ll find that your child will be more willing to follow if you say your rules like this: “When you've finished homework then you may play with the tablet.” So, he knows that if he doesn’t do his homework, not being allowed to use his tablet will be his consequence.
Self-control is an extremely valuable trait to have. It extends to a lot of aspects: behavioral (which is how your child controls his body and behaviors), emotional (how your child controls his feelings and moods) and cognitive (how your child effectively sets goals and follows through), says Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, associate director of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.
“The bottom-line is self-control is cumulative. When we grow in one area, it spreads to other areas, and every little bit helps,” says Landes. Watch her full TEDx talk below: