Dr. Leonard Sax, the author of The Collapse of Parenting: Why We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Adults, said, “Which of the following, measured when a child is 11 years of age, is the best predictor of happiness and overall life satisfaction roughly 20 years later when that child has become a 31-year-old adult?”
- grade point average
- openness to new ideas
The answer? #3. Self-control, conscientiousness, self-restraint, self-discipline or the new 2020 term, “effortful restraint”. Whatever “it” is that keeps us from doing what we want to do all the time, is super important. This superpower can help us stop binge watching Netflix, eating too much, or racking up too much debt. Over and over, behaviorists say we can learn self-control even if it’s not a strength of ours. I watched this happen in my life , as I learned through the book, The Power of Habit, as I worked on my self-control. I also saw this in my children. Some are born with this genetic blessing, and some have had to develop it. The Dalia Lama, and a host of studies, says religion can help us curb our harmful impulses, and Dr. Sax tells us below, how parents can help build years of positive habits. Lucky you, if you had parents who did that.
This is an excerpt from an interview in Forbes magazine, by Robert Dean Duncan, a psychologist with Dr. Leonard Sax:
Duncan: “The research you cite indicates that of five dimensions of a child’s personality—Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability—Conscientiousness is the only one that’s a clear predictor of happiness and overall life satisfaction as an adult. Can you elaborate on the implications for parents (and for adults)?”
Sax: “The clear implication of that finding is that teaching Conscientiousness has to be a top priority of parents.
Duncan: “You say that a child’s self-control is not hard wired, not determined at birth. What can parents do to influence a child to exert more self-control?”
Sax: “Self-control is a virtue. Like all moral virtues, it is not innate: it must be acquired and it must be maintained. Preaching is not particularly effective in teaching self-control. Instead—like most virtues—self-control is best acquired as a matter of habit. So how can parents best inculcate the habit of self-control? Simple: by requiring it... No games until your homework is done. No screen time until you have done your chores. By inculcating good habits, you build the habit of self-control. Longitudinal cohort studies suggest that kids who have built these good habits in childhood and adolescence are more likely to do well in adulthood, less likely (for example) to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. It’s not a guarantee, but the effects are significant.”
My daughter sent me a post a few years back from the Humans of New York Blog. The page my daughter sent me showed a picture of a young woman, and underneath her picture she said:
“I think I need to learn discipline. I don’t think I ever learned it when I was young. I had one of those typical inner city stories. My mom was addicted to drugs so I had no bedtime. No wake-up time. No chores to do. Those sound like simple things but they aren’t.’
“I’ve seen a lot of people in college who are able to work really hard at something even if they aren’t very interested in the subject, and I think that’s because they learned discipline.”
I googled “Human’s of New York Blog discipline” to find the date of the above quote, and instead saw this picture and heartbreaking, but wise observation:
“I wish I’d partied a little less. People always say ‘be true to yourself.’ But that’s misleading, because there are two selves. There’s your short term self, and there’s your long term self. And if you’re only true to your short term self, your long term self slowly decays.”
What matters is “effortful restraint.” And lucky are the children whose parents are willing and committed to help them learn positive habits that lead to self-control.