Monday, June 13, 2011

The parenting challenge: Building good character

The headline of an op-ed in Sunday's globe: Self-control in childhood brings future success hopefully caught the eye of parents who mistakenly think that tutoring, tons of extra-curricula activities, and top of the line computers give their kids an edge for success. Gareth Cook, writes that it turns out that good 'ole-fashioned' character is what matters most.

Back in 1972 psychologist Walter Mischel did a ground-breaking social experiment. He placed a four-year-old in a room with a table and one marshmallow. He said to the child, "you can have this marshmallow, or wait till I get back, not eat this one and I will give you two marshmallows." The challenge for each of the hundreds of kids participating was to wait for an even bigger reward by delaying gratification. I have watched the actual footage of this experiment, and the creativity kids employed to distract themselves from eating this marshmallow was as good as any reality hidden camera show. The real results however came some 20 years later when researchers met each of these kids now young adults. It seems that the kids who were able to delay gratification had overall higher SAT scores, success in school and work, were "healthier, more likely to save, less likely to abuse drugs, or be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on."

The good news is that self-control can be taught at any age. Granted some kids are born with difficulty managing impulses, but everyone has the capacity to learn, given they have "teachers", that means you parents,  who are willing to tackle this sometimes difficult subject. Cook says: "We are building a society filled with ever more compelling distractions and temptations. What will children need to thrive..not catalogs of facts but the discipline of mind to focus, persevere and make good choices." It's not that this is new news, its just that we have offered kids a plethora of new distractions, which they have wholeheartedly embraced. We have said to our kids, here is a whole table full of marshmallows..enjoy, eat up until it makes you sick!

As a parent, you have to decide what your priorities are. Is it to raise "successful" politicians like Anthony Weiner, or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or how about a "successful" investor  like Bernie Madoff? I'm guessing these guys would have gone for the marshmallow on the table and then lied that the "dog ate it" so they could get another one. Somewhere along the line, as these guys were growing up, I'm guessing they didn't hear the word NO very often.  It is no fun saying no. 'No to a fancy cell phone, no to having your phone on during dinner time, homework time, bedtime, no to expensive and unnecessary clothing, computers, video games, no to unsafe and unsupervised activities. Your teens might get mad, that's OK. Your teen might think you are unfair, that's OK too. But when your teen is a young adult, they will say thank you for helping to make them a responsible, disciplined, motivated and productive adult.

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