I was mentoring a teen recently who emphatically told me that he, “Just didn’t like doing things he didn’t like to do.” Yes, I said, that is a very common problem. Still, he shook his head confusedly and marveled at how he must be the only one who didn’t enjoy doing homework and this should excuse him from having to do it. Getting teenagers to do things they do not want to do is very difficult. I think this skill is self-discipline. No one likes doing homework, but we all have to do it, so to get ourselves to turn off the TV and over to the desk takes some serious self-discipline. Watch this wonderful video on kids and self-control:
We also know self-control is important in other areas. Researchers found that kids who couldnt wait for a marshmellow were more likely to get bad teacher evaluations and be a bully later in life. Kids with lower self-control also are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems at age 32! Since self-control is so important, I often wondered if we could teach self-discipline or if it was a skill that simply developed. Recently I read a study that gave me hope. Researchers at Case Western Reserve wanted to test a person’s ability to build self-control and discipline. First, they had college students take a self-control activity test. Then, for two weeks they asked students to simply pay attention to their posture and try to improve it as much as they could for those weeks. Researchers were surprised to learn that after only two weeks the students improved their overall scores on the self-control activity test. In fact, their willpower improved in all areas.
This experiment is important because it teaches us that self control, self-regulation or self-discipline is like a muscle. When we exercise our willpower in one area, it can help our self control in all areas. Here are a few activities that you can do with teens and kids to help them exercise the willpower muscle so it spreads to other areas:
- The marshmellow activity at home: Do the activity with your kids and see if they can wait for the second marshmellow!
- Cooking or baking: Waiting for cakes to cool before icing them or watching water boil can be a great exercise in self-control and willpower.
- Train for a race: Train for a marathon, lift weights together or try to improve your jumping height. This can help teach kids self-discipline and willpower.
- Work towards a goal: If your teens want to go to a concert or buy a big ticket item, tell them for every dollar they save you will match them. This helps them work towards a bigger goal and restrain themselves from buying other items to get the bigger one–a great lesson in self-control.
This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.
W. Mischel and C. Gilligan, “Delay of Gratification, Motivation for the Prohibited Gratification, and Responses to Temptation,” Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 69, 4 (1964).
M. Muraven, R. F. Baumeister, and D. M. Tice, “Longitudinal Imrpovement of Self-Regulation through Practice: Building Self-Control Strenth through Repeated Exercise, ” Journal of Social Psychology 139, 4 (1991).