Having It All Without Having It All: Five Part Series on Self-Control

Having It All Without Having it All, Part I: The Remarkable Science behind Self-Control.

In the early 1960’s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues began with a simple idea. They developed a study in which they offered 4-year-olds two options.  You can have a marshmallow now, OR if you can wait until we return, you can have two marshmallows.  The children were left alone for fifteen to twenty minutes with one marshmallow and hidden cameras rolled.

Ten to fifteen years later, these same children were assessed on many factors. The results were astounding.  The longer children waited for the two marshmallows, the more likely they were to be rated by their parents as being more attentive, competent, organized, self-motivated, optimistic, and intelligent.  Perhaps the most stunning finding was the significant correlation between the number of seconds a 4-year-old took to grab the marshmallow and their SAT scores.  Those who did not grab the marshmallow scored on average 200 points higher than those who did.  Even those who waited longer generally scored higher, even if they still ended up giving into temptation.  Followed as adults, they had more successful marriages, better health, greater occupational satisfaction, and better financial habits.  These findings were staggering.  Just as amazing, those 4-year-old children could quickly be taught strategies to delay their gratification.  This time pretzels were used as the lure. Children who were taught to think about the abstract characteristics of the pretzel (e.g., It’s like a thin, brown branch) were able to delay eating it on average more than eight minutes longer than when they were told think about its arousing qualities (e.g., crunchy, salty taste).

What did all this mean? And was this simple measure of self-control simply a substitute for something else, like intelligence?  In 2010, a study entitled A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  The authors had followed 1,000 children from birth through thirty-two years.  They wanted to determine what different factors could predict outcomes in adulthood.  Three factors emerged:  self-control, IQ, and socioeconomic status (SES).  Self-control was defined as skills related to self-discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance.  A child’s self-control at the age of three, regardless of their IQ and SES, was significantly associated with the following areas at age thirty-two: physical health, substance dependence, socioeconomic status, wealth, single- vs. two- parent rearing, financial planfulness/difficulties, and likelihood of criminal conviction.  Even more amazing, it wasn’t just that those with the least self-control had poor outcomes.  No matter where “on the curve” you were, your self-control predicted just how good or bad things could be.  Siblings with similar IQ’s in the same household could show very different outcomes.  The apparent reason:  their ability to delay gratification.  The authors tested the argument that self-control was inherited like IQ or other factors.  They looked to see whether improvement in self control during childhood made any difference.  The results were no surprise.  The more improvement a child showed, the less they were at risk for negative outcomes as an adult.

By the time our children have crossed the threshold into adulthood, we hope to have provided them with an ability to apply the knowledge of self-control. We hope they understand how learning to delay gratification not only is necessary for themselves, but for their family and their nation.  We hope this provides a critical piece to becoming hard-working, compassionate, and conscientious human-beings.  We hope they have an ability to sustain the vision for their children.   The world is full of false promises.  It seems that we would want the promises we make to be true.

Having It All Without Having it All, Part II: The Message of Self-Control:  Are We Following the Science or the Screen?

One of the statements you hear most from parents is, “I want to give my child everything (often those items I didn’t have).” It is born of an endless number of experiences, values, and sources of meaning.  The underlying causes of this statement are unique to each person.  The goals are typically simple.  We want our children to be happy.  Better yet, we want our children to be content with life.  We want them to strive for success, but we also do not want them to miss smelling the roses that exist along the way.  We want them to work hard when they should, but play hard when the opportunity presents itself.  We don’t want the glass to just be half empty or half full.  We want the glass to be full even when life presents no water at all.  Ask yourself this question:  What if you could teach your child to be content, successful, and passionate throughout life, regardless of how little or how much he or she possessed?  Would you want to do this?  If you could teach your son to give back much more than he took by the time he reached eighty years of age, would you?  Stated in preschool lingo, if you could teach your daughter to be thrilled at getting one gummy worm and not three, would you do it?

Most parents I know would give an unequivocal, “YES.” But the reality is that none of us truly live up to these ideas.  Partly, it is difficult to define these abstract terms.  Partly because the terms will be different for each person.  But if we are honest, there are many other factors that will serve to make us uncomfortable to acknowledge.

One of the most instinctive reasons that we stray away from these ideas is fear. From the earliest age, parents worry that their children will fall behind.  When the screens and the billboards offer to enhance their knowledge and “get them ahead,” we jump at the chance.  The question remains: does the science support the promise?  Recent researchers have looked at videos and other games, such as those marketed by Baby Einstein.  They wanted to see whether or not children would learn language better using videos versus children who just engaged in conversation.  The findings may surprise you.  Young children involved in regular conversation (for the same amount of time) increased their vocabulary much faster than those who watched videos designed to do the same thing.  Even more so, they did so without all the health concerns (e.g., inattention, obesity, etc…) that come with an increasingly sedentary life.  Einstein was a genius, but he certainly wasn’t a conversationalist.    So what about those games/videos that can teach children at an early age to read?  Well, the research here seems just as disappointing.  It isn’t that very young children can’t learn to read.  It’s just that it appears reading at a very young age has little impact on academic and/or occupational success.  Why?  Well, because hyperlexic preschool children rarely understand the meaning behind the language.  We need to teach what the words mean.  Then we can teach the symbols that comprise them.

Fear of falling behind other children isn’t the only culprit. As parents, we all worry to some extent about our children having cool clothes, new gadgets, and other accessories.  If not, they won’t be popular, and even worse, they might be teased for their simplicity.  We may be adults, but all of us remember yearning for the newest “hot” clothing item.  There was an intense fear that came with feeling it might not happen (I am still trying to understand why having a zipped pocket on my shoe meant so much).  That emotion will always remain with us.  The problem is that the research has been adamantly clear.  Teaching children to delay their need for immediate gratification is critical.  The earlier we teach them, the better their outcomes will be.  Patience, perseverance, and resiliency are not optional in this world.  Kangaroo shoes are.  Our fears regarding the plight of our children’s popularity will pale in comparison to another fear.  It is the fear that comes with realizing that they are leaving our house soon, and that they lack the self-control needed to pursue their goals as well as ours.

Beyond fear, though, there is another guilty party. We will call it “parent pressure.”  If you have ever watched a five-year-old soccer game, you quickly come to realize that the people most emotionally invested in the game are not the players on the field.  The explosion of formal activities over the last twenty years for young children has little to do with these kids clamoring for organized travel teams.  Children love to play, yes.  But if given the opportunity they can be incredibly creative with a box, a ball, a bike, a stick, and a tree.  Or at least they used to be.   Now we are faced with the pressure to help our kids keep up with the social, athletic, academic, and leisure demands that they bring home from the classroom.  And to be honest, with it comes our own goals of creating the superstar of the next generation.  All of this was more thoroughly discussed in the September issue of Just Thinking.

The issue of fear and pressure isn’t new. The volume, intensity, and infiltration of it all are.  No matter what our intentions, it seems that we just can’t escape it.  Here is the problem, though, when it comes to self-control.  No one else but we as parents are going to market this stuff.  Can you imagine Apple advertising that it has a new I-phone that teaches delayed gratification?  For only three hundred dollars, this phone teaches you how to wait patiently while your files are uploaded, sends you an email a day later when the information you requested is available, and saves your messages for the end of the day when things have quieted down.  Or better yet, can you imagine a friend offering to have you over to watch the game?  But before you do, you are going to have to help him pull weeds, take out the trash, and do his laundry?  It all sounds preposterous, right?  To have all the information you want, at the speed of light, at any time of day, anywhere you are, as you gorge yourself with food in front of sixty-four inches of unbridled aggression and mayhem (pick your video game of choice) is what we really want.  One thing is clear:  When it comes to self-control, no one else will sell it unless we as parents will.

Or maybe they are. Maybe another group is picking up slack where we are leaving off.

Having It All Without Having it All, Part III: Lessons from the Research:  What Policy makers Have Realized about Self-Control

Every day legislators are charged with the prospect of determining how taxpayer money is to be used. Policy makers have begun to realize what researchers have known for some time.  Skills that are grounded in self-control are critical in promoting optimal development in children.  They are also vital in managing the financial demands of this country.  The first lesson came after examining outcomes from fifty years of preschool programming designed to target at-risk youth.  Despite failing to produce sustained gains in IQ (compared to 10-year-old at-risk children not in the programs), something else very curious happened in this group.  Decreased work absenteeism, teen pregnancy, school dropout, delinquency, welfare assistance, out-of-wedlock births coupled with higher salaries and a greater percentage of home ownership emerged by the time children in these programs turned forty.

These unexpected findings coincided with something else that policy makers know. Spending money on the youngest members of the population has the greatest rate of return.  Research has indicated that well-designed early childhood interventions generate a return to society between $1.80 to over $17 for every dollar spent.  This contrasts to a roughly even financial return for school age programs.  There is a significant net loss for programs that target the post-school population.

The message became clear. If we were going to spend money, then the best investment we as a nation could make was in programs targeting self-control and personal responsibility in youngest of children.  Consequently, a multitude of grant opportunities have become available to preschool programs that are targeting these skills.  Top-end professionals from the fields of psychology, medicine, education, economics, and public policy are collaborating to find the best ways to integrate this programming in our schools.  One of the grants is entitled, “Mind in the Making,” which targets seven specific skills.  They are: focus & self control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed/engaged learning.  Two factors seem to have strong associations with these skills:  intelligence and self-control.  By now we know which one the legislators are after.

If it isn’t clear how this affects the plight of our country, let’s examine two of the most controversial topics of our day: health care and education.  There is no more divisive issue in politics than health care.  Party members routinely “sling mud” and criticize the other’s ideas, demonizing insurance companies, corporations, physicians, and medical manufacturers.  No matter how legislators try, no solution seems to meet the complex needs of our current society.  Going beyond the ethical disagreements, it seems that no politician really wants to address what researchers have been screaming for the years.  We, the people of the United States, are most likely the biggest reason for the health care crisis.  The statistics are staggering.  Over 60% of Americans are overweight or obese, including 74% of men.  In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of greater than 19 percent.  By 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent.  The prevalence of Type II diabetes has skyrocketed.  Other preventable illnesses continue to climb at alarming rates. In 2008, the cost of obesity alone in the United States was estimated to be $147 billion dollars.  Experts have noted that our health care system is literally collapsing under the weight of our own unchecked desires.  At the heart of it all?  We simply can’t seem to control our own desire for food and motivate ourselves to exercise.  It’s not that companies like McDonalds aren’t to blame for misleading advertising and unhealthy food, it’s just that in the end, we choose to pull into the drive thru.

Why is this not part of the health care debate when everyone seems to be calling for reform, change, and an end to corporate greed? It is simple.  Calling for all Americans to exhibit greater self-restraint would be a political death sentence.  Can you imagine a politician campaigning on the platform of self-control?  Can you imagine a candidate trying to convince his or her constituents that to really improve the fortune of our city, state, or country, we really must improve our personal responsibility?  People rail against companies who institute medical screenings in order to keep their health insurance programs from being too costly to fund.  What do we think would happen if a politician focused on addressing personal responsibility of the citizens for the betterment of the region?

But what if we as a nation did take this to heart? What if we exercised what we can call the “10% rule?”  What if Americans vowed to eat 10% less and move 10% more?  What if providers and administrators were content with making 10% less?  What if legislators wasted 10% less?  What if companies were content with 10% less revenue?  Even better, what if we took this 10% and gave it to something really meaningful?  Not a novel concept, I know.  I realize it seems so idyllic and so simple-minded.  But if only we took personal responsibility for our impulse to have more and were content with less.  It seems that the billions of dollars thrown into reform could find a much better home.

Let’s apply self-control to the education issue, too. In 1970, it cost $4300 to educate a child in the United States.  Today, even with inflation factored in, it costs $9000.  In 1970, the United States education system was the envy of the world.  Today, out of twenty-nine developed countries, we rank 25th in math education, 21st in science, and 23rd overall.  Ironically, our students rank 1st in their confidence in their math skills.  Clearly we are not seeing things accurately. So, what happened?  Well, not all is bad.  Some of the increase can be attributed to better services for disabled children that were not available thirty years ago.  Other unavoidable expenses also seem to be at play, such as increased security and infrastructural costs.  However, that does not seem to completely account for the dramatic increase.  Policy makers have come to understand that it has so much to do with that same self-control that allowed those 4-year-olds to wait for the marshmallow.  Teachers today will tell you that in the last twenty years, they have seen an evident decrease in their students’ abilities to persist at tasks, delay gratification, handle challenges, and think creatively.  It seems it is not just the kids and parents we have to blame.  The level of personal responsibility among teachers has been brought into question.  It is easy to blame poor schools on poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods; however, in some of the worst areas our country has known (downtown Los Angeles, Harlem), certain charter schools have proven they can perform with the best schools in the country.  Their students are graduating high school and college often at better rates than the general public.  There are a few catches, though.  Teacher’s employment is closely tied to their performance in the classroom (not just their students’ scores on standardized tests).  Children are at school later in the day, on weekends, and during the summer.  Self-discipline is not considered an option.

Critics of programs designed to teach skills such as self-discipline, delaying gratification, conscientiousness, and self-restraint will argue that it is all a matter of value. They state that we should not impose our beliefs onto another person.  To some extent they are right – we have been guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by our Constitution in our own unique way (within certain ethical limits, of course).  Most of us, though, would acknowledge that beneath many values is a truth.  In the matter of self-control, the overwhelming truth seems to be this.  Teaching our children to delay gratification is critical.  It not only gives them the best odds for a good life, but it is essential for our country to survive and thrive into a new generation.  History is full of examples of civilizations that collapsed under the strain of their own excesses and misgivings.  We simply cannot sustain the way things are.

It seems a lot like parenting when we are talking about teaching good health habits or promoting better self-control. But with the worst public schools in our state graduating less than 1/3 of their students, is there really a better option?  With the almost three quarters of our male population being overweight, do you blame legislators for proposing radical changes?

The statistics seem to suggest that something must change. It appears that self-control must be part of the opening act.

Having It All Without Having it All, Part IV: The Promise of Self-Control:  Are we equipped to pass it on?  

Parenting requires many things. Few are more important than faith and endurance.  For many, faith is inherently spiritual and/or religious.  For those who ground their lives in faith, it is easy to see how the values can lead to a deeper meaning and realization.  Psychology and religion have long advertised an adversarial relationship; however, more research is unveiling a sense that faith and psychology actually merge in remarkable ways.  Beyond the faith of religion, though, we as parents also need to have faith that the choices we make will lead our children in the right direction.  With the infinite number of opinions on the matter, parents often become confused.  There are no guarantees.  But at the same time, we should be careful about fooling ourselves.  There are truths amidst fog.  One reason we often deny these truths is that we love to point out the exceptions.  We are so quick to note that “my grandma lived to ninety-five years old, never exercised a day of her life, ate bacon and sausage every morning, and smoked all the time.”  The problem is that 90% of the rest of the population who did this are paying a serious price.

It is the same way with parenting. We are so quick to point out how “so & so turned out fine” even though his parents divorced, he ate whatever he wanted, and he played video games all the time.  We get so bogged down from all the contrasting advice.  It becomes very easy to miss the realities that have not changed.  In many ways, parenting, or for that matter life, is like playing the odds.  You can never be sure that what you put in will be given out in return.  But you can be sure of this.  The more you attempt to defy authorities and abundant evidence, the more likely you are to get burned.  It requires immeasurable faith, often in the midst of years and years of struggle, to teach the most important lessons.  But if helping your children become capable, lovable adults is your goal, there are certainly ways to increase your odds.

Faith isn’t the only issue, though. Endurance looms large.  For every effort to teach your child self-control, calories are burned and patience is tested.  Especially in the beginning.  The other day my oldest three children were watching television as I was getting ready to leave for a meeting.  They were getting ready for a movie, but it hadn’t been put in yet.  They sat down to watch what was on television.  Suddenly, as I attempted to say goodbye, I felt three zombies were staring at the screen.  My attempt to get their attention was clearly thwarted.  Why?  Because they were watching a chef whisking eggs into a muffin recipe.   It is abundantly clear in this and many other situations that if I wanted a reliable, regular in-home babysitter, the screens would be a good place to start.

The problem is that screens do not teach self-control. There is worse news, as the American Academy of Pediatricians has been screaming for years (to little avail). The more your children watch television, the more likely they will have problems with obesity, inattention, noncompliance, negative mood, academic failure, poor dietary habits, and behavioral problems.  Turns out that TV is a great babysitter.  It’s just when you get home, the house is a mess and there is way more work to be done than when you started.

So, in order to do it the old fashioned way, we as parents must have endurance. Amazing endurance.  I have never known a period of my life that demanded it more than right now as we attempt to raise our five kids.  Guess what?  Now we are right back at the same trite issue of self-discipline.  Craziness is inevitable in raising kids.  We have to find the time to eat well, exercise, make good decisions, and restrain ourselves from activities that could be detrimental to our well-being and that of our family.  The good news is that once again, research suggests that we are never too old to practice self-restraint.  A recent study published in the Monitor journal of the American Psychological Association found that even by practicing self-restraint in one area (e.g., fasting from sweets for one day), you could help improve your self control in other areas.  However, the authors noted that self-control appears to be a limited resource.  It requires regular practice to build it up.

It brings us back to the original question. What if you could teach your 3-year-old to be excited and appreciative for having one gummy worm, not three?  Let’s be honest.  Your preschoolers are not thinking about their health.  They are not dwelling on their future academic and occupational prospects.  They are not worried how their relationships will turn out.  They certainly don’t care about the state of our economy or our educational system.  They are only focused on two things: candy tastes good and I want it now. If whining gets them three gummy worms, then of course they will whine.  And if a full-blown, raging tantrum will get them the whole bag, then you better believe that the tantrums will keep coming. No surprise here.  This is part of parenting.  But those 3-year-olds will someday become 32 year-olds.  Like it or not, their adult world cannot revolve around getting things that immediately satisfy every hedonistic urge.  If they do, their life is destined to be way more difficult and less meaningful than it should be.  Yes, that is a judgment.  Few set out to be financially strained, in prison, dependent on substances, and raising kids on their own.  Three-year-olds are not concerned about these things.  If we do not start thinking for them, they will keep falling further and further behind.

Many parents will think that I am trying to take the fun out of things. I promise it is just the opposite.  Nothing is fun about a 4-year-old ruling the house.  Nothing is fun about being told that your 10-year-old has Type II diabetes.  Nothing is fun about watching your grown children go through a divorce and bankruptcy.  Nothing is fun about finishing each day so stressed that you try everything possible (including watching television late into the night) so that you can delay the inevitable morning to come.  Fun is watching your kids grow up and be successful, civic-minded, creative, resourceful people who go on to do remarkable things.  We love watching our high school athletes star on the field, our future actors put on a memorable performance on the stage, and our youth raise money for those who are less fortunate.  This makes us feel good.  Actually, better yet, these are the meaningful things that keep us engaged in the challenge that we know as parenting.  It should come as no surprise what these things require.  Self-discipline, perseverance, and delaying the need for self-gratification, of course.  Any high school football player will say the same during two-a-day practices in the middle of the summer.

Many parents will think that I am sending one more message of gloom. On the contrary.  Let’s not forget the lessons of all those prior groundbreaking studies.  Self-control knows no boundaries.  Said differently, those with poor self-discipline are at great risk, but those with great self-control are at incredible promise.  There are a lot of smart people struggling in the world today.  But look around at the true heroes of our past and the stars in our present.  They have figured it out.  Intelligence only takes you so far.  The resolve that comes from putting off immediate pleasure in search of a bigger goal is what sets these people apart.  These are the people that we admire.  These are the ones that seem to have something that others don’t.

Many parents will feel that I am judging. I am not.  I know the struggle of what it means to be a parent, especially when your kids will just not stop crying or when each second seems to bring another crashing failure.  Some days I just feel sad in and out of the office.  I feel sad for the typical kids who come to our Center every day already showing the toll due to lack of restraint.  It pains me to stare into parent’s eyes and see they have become afraid or disenchanted with their child.  I know they lack the endurance and faith to put into place interventions that may bring about joy, not apathy.  It sickens me to watch a family fracturing all because the promises of the Now generation are imploding around them. A couple of years ago, a local pediatrician who I greatly respect stopped by my office to chat.  During the course of the conversation, he acknowledged frustrations at the newest epidemic: Helpless Parent Syndrome.  He lamented that it seemed that so many children were running the show, and their parents were nervously trailing behind.

Above all, it is very disheartening to watch a great community struggle mightily. My wife and I returned four years ago to Evansville to raise our kids in the midst of family and friends.  I firmly believe that it is one of the best places in the world to watch your family grow.  Apparently so do others, as in 2008 Evansville was named the best mid-sized city in America for relocating families by the Worldwide ERC.  In the midst of its greatness, though, lie some serious problems.  It was recently named the most obese city in America.  The county has one of the highest suicide rates in the state.  It has the most busted meth labs of all counties in Indiana, which ranked 2nd in the country in this designation.  It has the highest smoking rate of a selected group of counties in the country.  The reasons for these unwanted titles are many; the common vein that runs through them is a serious issue with self-control.

Research has indicated that only 20% of Americans are flourishing in this current generation. This means that 80% are languishing, or just trying to survive day-to-day.  This seems almost inconceivable.  We have more available to us than at any other time.  It shouldn’t be.  It is only one more reminder that while technology can seemingly give us everything all at once, only we have the free will to find true meaning.  Despite our challenges, it is important to acknowledge that this generation has brought us incredible things.  It has illuminated and worked to change the evils of prejudice and discrimination.  It has enhanced services for people who struggle through no fault of their own.  It has brought information that has changed peoples’ lives who might have otherwise remained without hope.  It has connected us so much more with people who have similar struggles.  It has created cures for people who didn’t have them before.

We certainly don’t want to be the ones to lose it all.

Having It All Without Having it All, Part V: Applying the Evidence of Self-Control to Our Daily Lives

It is one thing to know that something is important. It is something altogether different to incorporate the practices in our daily lives.  It requires commitment.  It requires resiliency.  It requires faith – faith even if the fruition of our efforts seems like it will never come.  There are thousands of parenting books and magazine articles that promise great things in a relatively short period of time.  Some of them can be true.  It is possible to toilet train some children in a few days.  It is realistic to break many children of poor sleep habits in less than a week.  But when it comes to teaching children self-control, delayed gratification, and all the other skills needed for personal responsibility, it is a job that does not end until the child leaves the house.  It is important to remember that the frontal lobes needed for impulse control and critical thinking do not finish developing until many years after the state declares that your child is an adult.

There is another important lesson. Often our efforts to teach these skills to the youngest of children will not be met with great successes and glorious triumphs.  Weeks, months, even years will sometimes go by.  At times, you will wonder if you are making any strides at all.  Even when gains are made, setbacks are inevitable.  But slowly, and sometimes subtly, signs will emerge.  Ask parents who have made the commitment in the early years and lived to see the days when their young children became responsible adolescents and successful adults.  Have faith that while many areas of research seem conflicting and uncertain, this area of research continues to play the same old story.

Once this is understood, each day becomes an opportunity to play the odds of parenting in the most educated of ways. In spring of this year, our local school district was selected to participate in the Minds in the Making grant.  Six communities in the country were selected.  Using this framework among other ideas, here are some daily suggestions on how to incorporate self-control into critical areas of development:

Learning to Focus: Use simple activities (e.g., reading a book, playing with blocks, putting a puzzle together) to teach children how to play with objects that do not give any feedback, but require curiosity and attention. Start with how long they can focus at the present time. Gradually work to increase the amount of time that they spend engaged through reinforcement and interaction.

Perspective Taking: Make sure to educate daily and ask questions about how another person they encounter might feel. When they want something now or something that another person has, make sure to teach them (on their level) about the importance of waiting and understanding that all other people have needs too.

Communicating: Teach them that they cannot be heard immediately at all times and in all situations. Sometimes they may have to wait, especially if adults are talking. Even forcing them to be patient for a few seconds before a response is granted can teach them to understand there are appropriate boundaries. Educate them to be polite in greeting and responding. It may mean they have to delay an immediate urge to play or greet. They also need to be taught to take turns when others are speaking.

Making Connections: This is critical for learning — understanding similarities and differences, and sorting these things into categories. This does not occur unless they learn to handle frustration and mistakes. Teach them to persevere through difficult problems, handle disappointment well, and not avoid things immediately just because they are hard or boring. Reward them for trying hard regardless of the results. Help them understand how good it feels to persevere through a challenge.

Critical Thinking: The key is teaching young kids to be patient with tasks. Frustration does not have to occur when trial and error learning does not work out the first time. Young kids can be taught to pause and take a deep breath for a couple of seconds before trying again. Parents can teach patience in critical thinking. Asking a series of questions can help lead children to an answer instead of giving it right away.

Taking on Challenges: Parents can reinforce this by acknowledging that something might be hard. Teach kids to take even a few seconds to think about the next step. When something doesn’t work out the first time, excitement can still be shown over a good attempt. Children should not be removed right away from reasonable challenges just because they are difficult.

Self-directed, Engaged Learning: Offer simple toys and opportunities that encourage the child to be creative. These include Play-doh, Legos, and other building toys. Set up outside areas with sand boxes, open areas, and even garden spaces designed to arouse a child’s curiosity. Reward their attempts to try new things. Learn to leave them alone regularly or with other children to explore on their own.

Delaying Gratification: When children ask for toys or food, regularly let them know that they will not receive the object until a few minutes have passed (e.g., use a digital clock to give a concrete reminder) or a task has been completed. As they get older, work to increase their enthusiasm for future events (e.g., the field trip on Friday is going to be fun) that lead to anticipation. Be cautious about responding to cries of need or complaint immediately, even in younger children.

Collectively, these areas of focus suggest one primary conclusion: our first goal of parenting is to raise our kids to be good parents or professionals or pastors or peacemakers, but always good people. We hope to be friends with our children, but again, fifty years of research has indicated that when this is our first goal, the outcomes get worse. We also cannot make atoning for the mistakes of our parents our primary goal. Parenting can’t be centered on acting out the emotion from our difficult childhood. Giving children everything or taking it all away in direct contrast to what our childhood was like never sets a good precedent. The first step is often acknowledging when we are doing this. Then, we can move onto the common purpose that we all share.

The last thought may be the best one of all. Imagine if we as parents were told that we had access to something that could change our lives, and our children’s lives, in the most positive of ways.  Imagine that its teachings could be found from sources that most of us profess to be critical to our purpose for living.  Imagine that although it required initial, thoughtful effort and challenges, each year it was taught was the year that parenting made more sense.  Imagine that it was available to everyone at no cost, regardless of status or nationality or income or creed.  And imagine, in what seems like the biggest propaganda ploy ever, that it was free.  Not only was it free, but it could end up saving parents tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time their children left the house, in the name of toys, food, gas, medical bills, utility bills, academic remediation, and college tuition among other things.  It seems almost too good to be true.

Guess what? For once, it might just be better than promised.

Would it change the way you looked at gummy worms?

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