Caren Baruch-Feldman, PhD
Imagine twenty-five second graders sitting at their desks with a marshmallow in front of them, but NO ONE eats it. What is going on? Second graders are learning self-control. But, how did they do it? The second graders had the benefit of learning some self-control strategies from an old friend, cookie monster. In a terrific partnership with Sesame Street, cookie monster is seen cooling his thoughts, showing grit, changing his mindset, and ultimately showing self-control.
Grit and self-control go hand-in-hand. Self-control is about delaying gratification and resisting temptations, while grit is about persevering and remaining on track. Grit is about how to keep saying “yes” (e.g., staying with a difficult task) when yes is needed. Whereas self-control is often about how to say, “no” (e.g., not eating the marshmallow, not calling out), when no is needed. According to Dr. Duckworth, the leading expert on grit, “grit is passion and perseverance, sticking with your future, day in and day out.”
Dr. Walter Mischel in his new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control discusses his famous marshmallow test and the value of self-control. In his original test, conducted nearly 50 years ago, preschoolers were given a choice, one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. The experimenter then left the preschoolers alone in a room for 15 minutes to decide what to do. Dr. Mischel discovered that preschoolers who could wait, went on to have better outcomes later in life (e.g., higher SAT scores, more advanced degrees, better able to cope with stress).
But, what helped some kids wait while others could not? By activating cool, goal-oriented thoughts such as the following, preschoolers were more successful in waiting:
- not looking at the marshmallow
- putting the marshmallow in a picture frame
- imagining the marshmallow was something non-desirable
- by focusing on the end goal (two marshmallows instead of one)
In contrast, the following thoughts and behaviors made it more likely that the kids could not wait:
- demanding immediate gratification thoughts such as staring at the marshmallow
- smelling the marshmallow
- thinking how yummy it would be to eat it
Dr. Mischel discovered that although for some kids it is genetically easier to wait than for others, you can teach these self-control strategies. So how can you encourage grit, self-control, and resilience in yourself and your children?
Don’t swoop in. It is easy as a parent to break into the “mama tiger,” the part of you that wants to protect your children and solve their issues. However, for small matters, resist! Having some challenges to overcome is good for children. For example, I often help youngsters who are experiencing friendship issues. Although I feel for the children going through it, I know that these experiences will give them strength, thicker skin, and grit later on.
We need to be gritty about our kids being gritty. As parents and teachers, we should make it okay for children to face challenges because that is where learning takes place. As teachers, we should create classrooms where trying, struggling, and taking risks are as important, or even more important, as getting the answer correct. Children need to become comfortable with the struggle so that they see it as just a normal part of learning.
We need to encourage a growth mindset. How do we do that? Help your children to see that when a challenge arises, there is always an opportunity for growth, change, and evolution. Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, describes the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset means that an individual has a set amount, or a fixed amount of talents and abilities. Individuals with a fixed mindset often go through life avoiding challenges and failure. They don’t apply themselves. Why should they? Their talents are fixed. Kids with fixed mindsets can often easily navigate the younger grades, but when they face their first challenge in the later grades, they fall apart and quit, rather than persevere. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that their ability to learn is not fixed, but can change with effort. Failure is not seen as a permanent condition, but rather one from which to grow.
Praise the process, not the product. Dr. Dweck speaks about the importance of parents and teachers praising the process as opposed to the product. By doing so, children will be more willing to grow and challenge themselves rather than play it safe. As parents and teachers, we need to move away from “you are so smart” and instead to “you must have worked really hard.”
Change the mindset. For all these strategies, one needs to change one’s mindset. Certain mindsets elicit the long-term part of the brain to emerge, and certain mindsets encourage the short-term, immediate gratification part to come out. For example, distracting oneself, not focusing on the hot aspects of the item (looking, smelling, and touching), changing the item to something less desirable, and focusing on the end goal, encourages self-control, grit, and resilience.
- WOOP it out. Huh? Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen, the originator of WOOP, discusses this principle in her recent book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. So how does WOOP work?
W = Wish
O = Outcome
O = Obstacles
P = Plan (if-then)
The idea is that when one tries to increase self-control and/or develop a new habit, one should first imagine what it would feel like to have this wish (w) and outcome (o) occur. But then, just as important, one should imagine what the obstacles (o) are that prevent one’s wish and outcome from occurring. Lastly, one needs to make an if-then plan (p) for this obstacle. For example, one student I worked with wanted to procrastinate less (wish). She imagined that if she procrastinated less, she would be less stressed, happier, and with less naggy parents (outcome). However, she often procrastinated because she did not want to face the annoyance of the work (obstacle). Her plan then was, if I find myself procrastinating then I will remind myself of the WHOLE PICTURE and that although I may feel good in the moment, this lifestyle makes me stressed out in the long-term (plan).
Wait “10”. I have a bracelet that says, “Wait 10.” The bracelet (an if-then plan) reminds me to wait 10 minutes before making any decision that my immediate gratification brain thinks is a good idea (e.g., eating carbs after 9 PM). By waiting ten, I have found that I often, although not always, make better choices (drinking tea, instead of eating donuts). I have made similar bracelets with the kids I work with (e.g., wait 10 before calling out or acting silly). By having a cooling down period, the children have been more successful in tapping into their long-term as opposed to their short-term selves. The point is not to be a robot who never engages in fun activities, but instead to have ourselves, and our children, be in charge of our fate, instead of having the short-term, hedonistic part of the brain take over.
In summary, we need to encourage our children to live their lives as though it were a marathon and not a sprint, to perceive challenges as setbacks to overcome, and failures as learning opportunities. Lastly, we need to lead by example, share our own gritty times, and remind our children that what is often most meaningful comes with work and effort.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Mischel,W. (2014). The marshmallow test: Mastering self-control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Oetintgen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. USA: Penguin Group.
Duckworth, A.L. (2013). The key to success? Grit. from http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.
Dr. Baruch-Feldman’s website: drbaruchfeldman.com
Disclaimer: Although Dr. Baruch-Feldman is a member of the Westchest County Psychological Association (WCPA,) the views in this article are her and not the views of WCPA.
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