This post was originally published 9/12/2009.
Last week my dad handed me an interesting article he was reading about children and self-discipline. The basis of the article was new research showing that children can be taught self-discipline (is ‘taught self-discipline’ oxymoronic to anyone but me?). While I agree that parents can work with children to encourage patience and similar traits, the theory had some major flaws in reasoning that are important to us as parents because this sort of faulty thinking is a main source of something we all know well…
The story went like this…
In the 1960’s, Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted his famous Marshmallow Experiment relating to deferred gratification. Four year olds were given a marshmallow. They were told that if they waited 20 minutes to eat that first marshmallow, they would then get a second. The future success of these children was then followed through surveys, and the studies showed that the children who were able to defer gratification – not eat that first marshmallow – were also more successful as adults, scored on average 210 points higher on the SAT’s, etc., etc., sunshine and happiness.
The little article that my father handed to me suggested that if we teach our children self-discipline, they will also be higher achieving and score better at standardized tests.
Really? I call Mommy Guilt!
While I fully believe that the marshmallow-waiters were more successful later on in life than the marshmallow-eaters, I do not believe for a hot second that this is a trait parents are responsible for replicating in order to get our children into Harvard. In fact, I’m sure that further studies of those children would show other common characteristics of high achievers: educated parents, higher socio-economic status, high IQ, access to better education, participation in organized sports…
Somewhere between Einstein and Little Einsteins, science went flying off the tracks and completely stopped differentiating between correlation and causation, and parents have been paying for it ever since.
Correlation: two variables change at the same time – in this case, kids who unapologetically scarf down a marshmallow on average perform poorer than kids who can wait for two marshmallows.
Causation: the relationship of cause to effect – I push you, you fall down. Causation.
While self-discipline is a lovely trait in children – and missing in many adults, I might add – I purport that it does not cause children to go on to make six figures. It is simply one of many traits that correlates with future success. But the sensational media would like us to think that if you teach your children self-discipline they will find the same success.
So parents. Relax. Try your best. Raise good, kind children. And try to take what the media throws at us with a grain of salt. We’re all doing okay.
(Also, TV will not turn your child’s brain to mush, bottle feeding will not cause learning disabilities, and children who potty-train after the age of three will, in fact, not go to kindergarten in diapers. Phew!)
Disclaimer: I am not a parenting expert nor a medical doctor. I have four years experience teaching, a M.S.Ed. in psychological services in education from the University of Pennsylvania, and five years experience raising two well-rounded children, one of whom would have eaten the first marshmallow before good old Mischel had the chance to finish telling him about the second, the other who would have taken both marshmallows home and saved them on her shelf until they became petrified and dust covered.