The American way to self-control

American parents can teach their children self-control without emulating Asian “tiger mothers” or strict French mamans, write Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of  Welcome to Your Child’s Brain in a New York Times commentary.

Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, “is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playground,” they write. “She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention.”

But, non.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure.

. . . Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.

It’s not that easy to teach self-control, responds Daniel Willingham on his new blog.

The authors suggest that “rather than trying to emulate the strict discipline supposedly instilled by child-rearing techniques in other countries, it may be more useful to consider the science of successful parenting in general.”

Uh, actually, the science of successful parenting shows that children who are high in self-control are more likely to come from homes with house rules.

The suggested “American” strategies — find a hobby, encourage imaginative play, teach a second language, promote aerobic exercise — aren’t likely to work, he predicts.

The successful “Tools of the Mind” curriculum uses lots of imaginative play, but . . . it requires a skillful teacher (and a set of ground rules as to how the drama is to be carried out) for the strategy to work.

A hobby might help self control if the child is (as the authors say) passionate about it, and so learn that hard work is necessary for a desired payoff. But again, you’re sort of leaving a lot to chance if you hope that your child will develop a hobby consonant with that, and will actually stick with it. (I’m reminded of the 13-year-old son of a friend, who calmly told his mother “Mom, don’t you get it? Watching TV is my hobby. It’s what I do.

Willingham isn’t arguing for  ”strict parenting,” he writes. The “science of parenting” shows that “parental warmth, and a predictable, organized home environment” are associated with self-control.

Willingham writes here on what teachers can do to increase students’ self-control.

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