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Do you know the Marshmallow Test?  It was developed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s and has proved one of the most effective predictors of how well a child will do at school and through adult life.  You can see an excellent article on it in the New Yorker:

As parents there are two things of real interest here:

1         Seemingly soft behavioural issues are far more critical to a child’s long term development than apparently hard factors like IQ.

2         There are ways to help a child develop the right behavioural patterns.

The first is absolutely fascinating to me.  It’s like “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; give him a fishing rod and feed him for a lifetime”.  As parents we should be the bow from which they fly.  So this experiment indicates that the very most important thing we can do is to help our children develop strong behavioural patterns.

If you drill a child through their academics, sport, music or whatever, they may achieve grades but their self-control will be impoverished.  The ideal is for children to be choosing to practice or study of their own accord.

So that leads me to the second issue; how do we help a child get it right?

Some people will say that it is all genetic and immutable.  I fundamentally disagree.  Yes, we all find things harder or easier, but equally we can all get better at anything we choose to work at.  In fact, having a “growth mind-set” is one of the key factors in someone’s development.  This means that the “it’s all genetics” group are all underperforming their potential!

The essence to the marshmallow test is that the child’s frontal lobe had to exert its power-of-reasoning and then power-of-control over the more base instinct of immediate consumption.  Furthermore, the successful children were using considerable creativity to find ways to actively distract themselves from the temptation, in order to make the task easier.

This is all stuff that children can learn and as parents we have a critical role in helping them do so.

The first tip to note is that children watch you for guidance on how to live.  If you exhibit no self-control, then you are setting that as “normal” behaviour for the child.  They won’t be trying to emulate something better if they have not observed it.

Second, children can learn through understanding.  They need to learn to analyse and use their understanding to help them choose better paths.  That takes practice and guidance from us, their parents.

Third, the brain works on very simple pain/pleasure principles.  Pleasure strengthens neural connections and pain leads to avoidance of them.  So, self-control for delayed gratification can be made easier by connecting pleasure with the self-control.  Simple really!  For instance, if you praise a child who is sat doing some homework rather than watching the TV, you are delivering that pleasure.  So the child no longer has to accept delayed gratification; they have obtained some straight away.

To take it a step further, you can say “I am so proud of how hard you work, when I know other children need to be pushed all the way”.  That instils a constant feed of pleasure from that self-image of “being a hard worker”, which is then actually heightened by working.  And, neatly, this idea takes me back to the fish and the fishing rod.

With intentionality and a bit of luck, if you can instil a self-image in your child of being a hard worker who deals with adversity, has integrity and is a good person to live with, your arrow will fly true long after leaving the bow.

Take every opportunity to affirm the traits that you want to see.  You will achieve far more through practised affirmation than you will ever achieve through condemnation, necessary as it may be at times.

David Morgan is Managing Director of the Easyread System, an online course for children who struggle to read. The course is optimised for children with dyslexia and highly visual learning styles.