Fiona McCade: The power of self-control

The 'marshmallow test' at an American university showed that children who resisted temptation became happier adults. Picture: Getty
The 'marshmallow test' at an American university showed that children who resisted temptation became happier adults. Picture: Getty
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WE have to convince our children that willpower can be a good thing, especially once they grow up, says Fiona McCade

For more than 50 years, the Stanford University Marshmallow Test has been considered the simplest and most effective way to find out whether a child will grow up to be an “instant gratifier” or a “high delayer”.

George Best's lack of self-control landed him in trouble many times. Picture: Getty

George Best's lack of self-control landed him in trouble many times. Picture: Getty

Basically, the experiment involved giving nursery-school-aged children a choice. They could have one marshmallow immediately or, if they could manage to wait, alone, for up to 20 minutes, they would be given two marshmallows.

In some versions of the test, the poor mites were even left within grasping distance of the marshmallows, to make the torture even more exquisite.

However, by subsequently following the test subjects’ development, researchers found that the children with enough self-control to fight temptation – the ones who hung on to achieve the greater gratification – ultimately turned out to be healthier, wealthier and generally happier than their more gannet-like classmates.

I’ve often wondered whether the children who didn’t like marshmallows had an advantage in this test. I don’t, so I could definitely have lasted the whole 20 minutes, but would it have proved my maturity? Even now, in my forties, if you leave me alone with a Cadbury’s Creme Egg, there’ll be nothing but wrapper left before you can say “low impulse control”.

I blame my parents for not training me to resist cocoa solids at an early age. They would have been doing me a big favour, as a new study of 15,000 British schoolchildren by psychologists at the University of Stirling has shown that “early life self-control [is] a powerful predictor of job prospects in adulthood”.

The Stirling report says that children who can’t master willpower – today’s version of the feckless marshmallow munchers – risk spending 40 per cent more time in unemployment than their more restrained peers.

The message is clear – we must teach our kids self-control. But how to do that, when so many parents don’t have any?

Self-control, and its even more important sibling, self-discipline, haven’t been fashionable for some time. The very word “discipline” now carries uncomfortable connotations of the Victorian schoolroom. We’re forever being told to loosen up, let go, splash out, indulge ourselves, treat ourselves, because we’re “worth it”. Even when we clearly aren’t.

While self-control has been wandering in the social wilderness, self-belief has been enjoying a massive boom. The message of the moment is that if you truly believe in yourself, you can do anything. Yes, anything. All you need to do is believe, and you can launch yourself off a cliff and fly. Your amazing uniqueness and the sheer power of your self-confidence will be all you need to avoid plummeting to a messy end.

I’m not sure that the current generation of parents – my generation – knows enough about self-control to be able to pass on this vital wisdom. Many of us struggle to be good examples and perhaps it’s partly because many of our own role models were shaky. We were brought up to idolise bad boys like George Best, who couldn’t control anything in his life but a football, and for that, apparently, he could be forgiven anything. Even destroying two livers.

I grew up watching the temperamental John McEnroe smashing tennis racquets and being praised for his “passion”. We even had Bill Clinton, the US president who couldn’t control his libido, but who is still a world figure. The list goes on, each delinquent famous name making it more and more difficult to persuade impressionable minds that self-restraint is cool.

I’ve often witnessed furious, flailing parents yelling “Shut up! Just CALM DOWN!” at their howling offspring, without a trace of irony. So no wonder there are kids out there with no idea how to control themselves.

I know one family with four children and it’s evident how the parents’ will to take proper charge of their brood has withered and waned over the years. The first child is well-behaved. They obviously tried quite hard to begin with. The second is also a relatively well-adjusted personality. Then I can only imagine that apathy – or just sheer exhaustion – set in, because the third is a brat. It has bags of self-confidence, but no manners, empathy or discretion. The fourth child is practically feral. After this last one came along, the parents obviously discovered contraception, but gave up on responsibility. And without firm guidance, these kids simply haven’t a chance.

Self-control is like a muscle. You have to exercise it regularly to make it stronger. Saying “Pull yourself together!” to someone with no experience of self-mastery is about as useful as saying to them, “Climb Everest!” Which just goes to show that the Stirling researchers are right – when it comes to learning good behaviour patterns, it’s best to start young.

Having said that, I don’t believe that it’s ever too late to get a grip, even if you’ve never managed it before. When I think about the number of times I’ve wanted to murder someone, but never done it, I feel quite proud of myself.

I would characterise self-discipline as the mental fortitude to make yourself do something that is necessary, but perhaps unpleasant. Like going to work. I have achieved this feat on many occasions, so there must be hope for me.

I would define self-control as the strength to stop yourself doing something that might not be helpful. Like screaming, “Stuff your stinking job!” at your boss. I have avoided doing this so often, I really must start congratulating myself on having way more self-control than I ever suspected.

In fact, I’m thinking of allowing my nine-year-old to conduct the Stanford test on me, so he can learn from my impeccable example. But I must make sure he uses marshmallows, and not Creme Eggs.

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