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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  1. Perhaps French parents do not have to fear arrest or the intervention of child protective services if they discipline their kids in public.

    That being said, appropriate behavior starts at home. Our kids weren’t perfect, but they learned where the boundaries were – and the consequences of going beyond them – at very young ages. They had age-appropriate chores, even as toddlers (putting away toys, setting the table etc) and we ate together daily, so they learned table manners, including appropriate conversation. They also ate what we ate. I cooked, healthy-style, from scratch and we just assumed they would eat whatever was served, and they almost always did. BTW, they were not unusually docile; quite the contrary. They were all stubborn, independent and very high-energy – and they’ve all turned out well, anyway.

  2. “A lack of self-control” is the one thing that can be attributed to everything bad that’s ever come out of humanity. If a society can’t learn effective self-control, it falls apart…

  3. You learn self-discipline by pursuing something you like/enjoy, but you don’t learn self-control until you have to do something you don’t like or that takes you away from something you like.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I suspect that there are serious physical differences between people with good impulse control and people with poor impulse control, differences in brain wiring (which may be either genetic or developmental), and differences in endocrine and adrenal function.

    But I’m not a biologist or a doctor.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m sorry — that comment must seem really out-of-the-blue, given that the subject is about various methods of developing self-control, not the reasons for variance. Let me be more clear: the method that would be best is going to depend on the situation, presumably. It’s not clear that there’s going to be one best method for developing delayed gratification skills in two different people, one of whose brain is screaming at them at 170 mental decibels, and the other whose brain is just nagging them in a persistent, annoying voice.