Today I’m talking about the skill I believe to be the (Dare I say it?) MOST important skill to teach children. To call it one skill, however, is a little misleading. It’s really a set of skills– a whole host of skills. At the center of those skills is the ability to control something– a behavior, a thought, movement, or a feeling.
Generally, this is called self-regulation. But I am also talking about executive function (control in the brain), emotion-regulation (control of feelings) as well as behavioral regulation (control of actions & movement).
Most of you have probably heard about the marshmallow test in which a researcher will ask a young child (usually between ages 3 and 5) if they would like one or two marshmallows which are placed on a plate in front of them. Then the researcher devises a reason to leave the room and the child is presented with a choice before the researcher leaves: they can eat one marshmallow now or wait until the researcher returns and then they can have two. This is technically called ‘delay of gratification’ or the ability to suppress an impulse (eat that lovely marshmallow) in order to meet another goal– listen to the authority figure of the researcher and wait.
Delay of gratification is only one self-regulation skill, albeit the most well-known one, and it has been linked to many outcomes– children who wait longer are more sociable, have better grades, and even better SAT scores years later. There are also brain differences between the children who were better at delaying and those who were not as good at waiting. Self-regulation is partially genetic– some children will naturally be better regulated than others, however, self-regulation is very teachable as well.
Here are FIVE key ways to nurture self-regulation in your children.
1. Use naturally occurring situations to teach strategies for self-regulation.
Waiting to open holiday presents, birthday presents, not sticking her fingers in her friend’s birthday cake before it is served, or waiting for a special anticipated activity are all teachable moments for self-regulation.
- First, realize that these situations are truly challenging for younger children. Before the event or situation, explain they will have to wait and why waiting is important.
- During the waiting process, offer ways for your child to distract themselves and help them to wait. What studies about self-regulation have shown is that it isn’t about the child having the sheer willpower to wait, but instead having lots of strategies to distract themselves while they wait. Do something else, sing a song, tell a story etc.
- Recognize it if they struggle, “Sometimes it feels hard to wait. When you are waiting you can do something else.” When I tell my son he has to wait for a special treat, he will say- “But can I just look at it, can I just touch it?” I say, “Let’s take a quick look and then let’s do something else, it is harder to wait when you are looking at it.” In doing that, I acknowledge his desire and offer a strategy to help him regulate.
2. Realize it is just as important to let go of control.
One of my favorite quotes from researchers who study self-regulation is this:
“The human goal is to be as undercontrolled as possible and overcontrolled as necessary”— Block & Kremen (1996).
As parents, we spend ALOT of time trying to teach our children to control impulses. It is easy to forget that it is just as important to let them be “undercontrolled” for lack of a better term.
I loved it when I would return to the room as a researcher in those delay of gratification studies and the kids would stuff both marshmallows in their mouth as happy as could be, no restraint at all. They waited until I came back and then they reveled in the fact of being able to enjoy those marshmallows.
In other cases, kids would seemingly do a good job waiting, but when I came back in the room they were overcontrolled and anxious. Those kids could hardly enjoy the marshmallow. So, it isn’t just about waiting or controlling, it’s about being flexible in that control — able to control impulses when needed and letting loose when we can. If you notice your kids being pretty controlled and tending towards anxiety make it your mission to help them learn that sometimes it is okay to let loose.
Teaching your children when to let go of control is equally important as teaching them when to be in control. One of my favorite family traditions is that on your birthday you wake up to everyone in the family singing, presents and a sweet treat. Why on your birthday should you have to wait all day for presents and cake?
3. Remember self-regulation skills develop over years.
Generally speaking, the organization of the brain system that underlies self-regulation occurs around the age of three. This system goes through a period of rapid development until about the age of five. After the age of five, the development brain areas associated with self-regulation slows down until puberty when a second brain growth spurt means a whole new level of regulation skills will need to be organized and learned in adolescence.
So, all those teachable moments will add up over the years. There may be times when you feel like you don’t see any progress — it develops slowly and gradually. It is one of those things where you’ll see effects much later.
Right now, I see my role as simply noticing when my son struggles and helping him through it.
For example, I love that my son has such determination– but he also gets incredibly frustrated. He will be trying to connect trucks together with Lego pieces and when it doesn’t work he screams and gets upset, but he WILL NOT give up. I want him to retain that feeling of determination, but he also has to learn to manage his frustration (don’t we all?).
I try different strategies (Three quick Tips to Help Kids Calm Down) to get him to take a little break, sometimes I’ll even offer a snack, and then we will go back to his project. Often, he can either accomplish what he wanted to do or he will come up with an alternative. That way, I hopefully preserved that wonderful tendency for determination and helped him manage frustration. When he is older, he will be able to manage that frustration on his own, well, until he is a teenager, but let me get through threenager first! And that’s one reason behind the threenager/teenager comparison. Both, on different levels, are struggling with self-regulation.
4. Have your child make a choice and a plan.
Cognitively a well-regulated older child would be able to look through a set of options and make a reasoned decision. Or, faced with a wide array of possibilities, that child could make a plan. When it comes to well-regulated thought our goal for our children is that they can organize their thoughts and work through problems in a logical way. Cognitively they would be able to sort through the chaos, so to speak, and inhibit distractions in the meantime.
How do we foster this when they are young? I had a professor once who said, “No child is ever too young to make a choice, carrots or peas? Which one do they spit out the least?” Providing your child with plenty of opportunities for making choices — do you want to walk to the playground or play in the backyard? Will you have milk or water? Which pair of tennis shoes will you wear today? Gives them the practice they need to develop decision-making skills.
At younger ages remember to give a choice between two options and as they grow, increase the options. Also, give your child the opportunity to make a plan. This morning we are staying home we can do any of these things- what would you like to do first, second and third? My Aunt took her preteen and teenage sons to New York City once for vacation and she told me each son got a day to plan. They planned what they would do and she gave them a subway map so they could plan the route as well. I think this is a great activity for older kids. It is the same idea with younger kids as well– to plan and map out an activity is a great exercise in cognitive regulation.
5. Play control games.
Any game that asks kids to control something is fostering self-regulation. Anytime they have to suppress something. Like a whisper game, slow down speed up, the freeze game/dance, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and similar. See my post on more of our favorite games for self-regulation here for 3 to 5-year-olds and for 5 to 7 year-olds here. Also, make believe play has been shown to be linked to self-regulation. And just plain old free play. Yep, they are naturally equipped to learn self-regulation just through unstructured free play, we are along for nudges and helping through the struggles, but giving time and space for play may be the best thing we can do.
What are other moments you have noticed yourself teaching self-regulation? Do you find yourself needing to teach your child more regulation or needing to teach them to let loose more? Let’s discuss in the comments!