Self-control gone wild?

Has teaching self-control gone wild? Daniel Willingham responds to Elizabeth Weil’s New Republic cover story, American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids: In Defense of the Wild Child.

Weil uses self-regulation, grit and social-emotional skills interchangeably, but “they are not the same thing,” writes Willingham.

Self-regulation (most simply put) is the ability to hold back an impulse when you think that that the impulse will not serve other interests. (The marshmallow study would fit here.) Grit refers to dedication to a long-term goal, one that might take years to achieve, like winning a spelling bee or learning to play the piano proficiently. Hence, you can have lots of self-regulation but not be very gritty. Social emotional skills might have self-regulation as a component, but it refers to a broader complex of skills in interacting with others.

. . . Weil is right that some research indicates a link between socioemotional skills and desirable outcomes, some doesn’t. But there is quite a lot of research showing associations between self-control and positive outcomes for kids including academic outcomes, getting along with peers, parents, and teachers, and the avoidance of bad teen outcomes (early unwanted pregnancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, et al.). I reviewed those studies here. There is another literature showing associations of grit with positive outcomes (e.g.,Duckworth et al, 2007).

It’s possible that better test scores (and fewer drug and alcohol problems) come at a cost, Willingham concedes. Weil suggests a trade-off between self-regulation and the wild child’s creativity and personality.

But self-regulation doesn’t have to crush exuberance, Willingham argues. It tells a child when she’s being adorably exuberant and when she’s being a pain.

If we’re overdoing self-regulation, children will “feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior,” he writes. “When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation,” he writes.


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