Educate your children to self-control…., and you will have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society. Benjamin Franklin
I was recently admiring an acquaintance who had done quite well with his life because of his ability to delay gratification. He felt it was because he held a firm grip on his long term desires. He scratched his head and considered the mistakes of his friends and family members.
Some of them continued to do the same ole things that repeatedly led to their undoing. Gambling large amounts of money that they could not afford to lose. Smoking even though they were warned of their personal health risks. Having multiple illicit affairs which had resulted in losing much that they cared about. Engaging in domestic violence and winding up in jail or prison. Investing in high stakes-sure-to-fail business ventures over and over.
As I later mulled over our conversation, I was again reminded of the research of Dr. Walter Mischel who worked with pre-schoolers in an attempt to understand more about self-regulation. Four-year-olds taught him one big reason why we continually make the same sort of life errors. Luckily, the youngsters have also given clues about how we can change.
Mischel explained the issues in a book called The Marshmallow Test. Four and five year-olds were told that they could have a treat which they liked (a marshmallow, a pretzel, or a cookie) right now. Or, if they chose, they could wait until the researcher came back. If they could wait, then they would get two treats.
Here’s what made Mischel’s research popular with most teachers and many parents.
Mischel found a strong correlation between the length of time those four and five-year olds could wait and their SAT scores as teens. In general he found that the ability to resist temptation now for a desirable goal later, seemed to be quite a good predictor of success – of being able to achieve one’s goals and be happy.
Mischel says most of the poor life decisions involve going along with what he calls our “hot systems” which say to us in various ways, “Oh, go ahead and eat the marshmallow right now. It will taste so yummy.”
The “hot system” is an older, more primitive part of our brain. It’s set to react to what is happening right now. If it sees a delicious cookie, it wants to grab it. If it gets mad, it wants to hit. If it sees someone else’s money laying out, it wants to take it. It is impulsive.
According to Mischel, the “cool system,” by contrast, is a newer part of our brain. It considers the consequences of poor choices. It looks out into the future and examines significant goals and dreams. It thinks about various ways of getting what we want that are acceptable to others and more likely to work out the best for us in the end.
What can we do to cool down our hot systems and heat up our cool systems so that we make good life choices?
Mischel says let’s learn from the kids who can resist temptation.
The children who resist the treats, who don’t eat the marshmallows, do things like look away from the treat, use their toes as piano keyboards, pick their noses and examine what they find (well, maybe we won’t choose that one). All these distracting, distancing behaviors are ways they are using to cool down their hot system – to keep themselves from just immediately grabbing the treat and eating it.
The kids who are able to wait often seem to be using their imaginations to activate their cool systems. They sing songs reminding themselves if they wait, they can have two treats. Two treats, two treats. They keep themselves focused on the goal.
When asked what parents could do to help their children learn to be better at self-regulation, Mischel said exactly what you would expect. “Be good role-models. Children learn a lot from role-models.”
Mischel also promoted a specific tool for working with self-regulation which adults can model to children. He calls it the “if, then” technique.
Practicing “if, then” means that we think ahead about what sort of things are likely to trigger our hot system. Then we make a very specific plan for cooling down our hot system and heating up our cool system.
For example, a couple of days ago, our grandchildren visited our family cabin where others had stacked mounds of chips and candy. Normally the kids would have little access to these unhealthy snacks. All of sudden, they are faced with a triggered hot system that wants to grab handfuls of M and M's and whole bags of potato chips.
How might the kids and parents prepare for this?
The family might discuss ahead of time the importance of their goals to be healthy and why it is such a priority. Then they might discuss what to do if they see candy and chips. For example, "If we see chips and candy, then we will go outside and play."
Though Mischel does not mention it, recent researchers are also associating self-compassion with increased ability to control one's self. By noticing when our hot system is activated, understanding why, sending ourselves calming kindness, we can cool our hijacked systems.
I, personally, really like the self-compassion route to self-regulation. For those of us who have difficulty with willpower and techniques like "if, then" it can be helpful.
Self-compassion includes noticing my emotions and thoughts - my triggers, understanding that I am human and going to be attracted sometimes to things that are not in my best long-term interest, being kind to myself as I consider options to dealing with temptations while keeping my values in mind.
For example, I may notice how my mouth waters at those twizzler sticks, understand that it's normal, but remind myself that I want to be healthy and decide to have a few cherries, go outside for awhile, and have one stick later if I still want one. My hot system is cooled by a plan that seems doable and my cool system is heated up by reminding myself of my options and values. I am not stressed by the conflict between my short-term desires and long term goals.
Self-control (and self-compassion) has been linked to a huge number of desirable outcomes including living longer, better relationships, being happier and more satisfied with life. It is worth serious self-experimentation. We don't need to aim for perfection, but progress.
We will do better if we see ourselves as people who are capable of change. Mischel is a firm believer in neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change itself with repeated practice. We keep practicing, our neurons re-wire themselves, we become more masterful with ourselves, and modify those behaviors that are clearly not to our benefit.
Self-regulation is one of human beings' less developed strengths according to researchers. We have had problems since the story of Adam and Eve. We can change that. With a little practice, we may see progress, reap the benefits, and reclaim a bit of Eden.
How might we journey to The Good Life by learning better self-control?
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