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Advice concerning children (Pt 4)

Contents of this Part

Try to teach self control

Talk about money

Don’t expect children to do anything different from the behaviours you have modelled

A very useful thing to instil in children

Children are the future

Try to teach self control


You may have heard of the marshmallow test.  Back in the 1970s an American psychological researcher named Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with 4 year old children.  After establishing that a child liked marshmallows, Mischel made an offer to the child: the child could have a marshmallow right away, or, if the child was prepared to wait for a few minutes while Mischel was out of the room, the child could have 2 marshmallows.  A marshmallow was left sitting on a table in the room.  Unbeknownst to the children, they were filmed while Mischel was out of the room.  (There were various versions of this test, but this was the most famous one.)

Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as Mischel left the room.  Some were able to wait for up to 15 minutes.  To avoid eating the marshmallows these latter children did things like close their eyes, kick the table, talk to themselves, sit on their hands or pull their hair.  The test showed that even at the age of 4 some children were better at controlling themselves than others.

All well and good.  So why have I wasted your time telling you something that you could probably guess ?

The kicker came about 12 years later.  Mischel followed up on as many of the children that he tested that he could find.  He obtained all sorts of information about what they were like as senior high school students.  He discovered that the better the self control the children had demonstrated as 4 year olds, the better those children had performed in pretty much all aspects of their lives as high school students.  These results were confirmed in later years when further follow up occurred with the children at various stages of their adult lives. 

(By the way, it turned out that the marshmallow test results were by far the best way of predicting future success - they were much better than things like who the parents were, or how wealthy they were, how good the schools were, what was taught ...)

Work subsequent to Mischel’s testing suggests that there is good reason to believe that self-control can be taught, in that it is controlled by a part of the brain that is susceptible to being changed.  (If you are interested in following up on this, a good place to start is the book Mischel wrote in 2014: The Marshmallow Test.)

This all suggests that if you can try to teach your children to exercise some self-control when they are young, you may be doing them a big favour.  Now, I am not suggesting that you do anything dramatic.  Perhaps try your own version of the marshmallow test (Mischel also offered other treats to the children he tested – he wanted to offer them something that they really wanted), and if self-control does not come naturally to your children, then perhaps workshop with them possible strategies that they might use, and then get them to try to use the strategies.  You could also experiment with increasing the size of the reward for holding off.  I strongly recommend that you not be in any way heavy-handed at any stage of this exercise – if your children continue to go for the treat as soon as possible, you and they should just move on with your lives (but read on).  


However you might want to revisit this issue indirectly once your children are old enough to be taught the ins and outs of saving money (which will be at the time that they start getting pocket money or earning their own money).  Saving money requires self-control.  I don’t think it’s necessary to make that express link, but I would urge you to encourage your children to save money. 

I should conclude this subsection by quoting something from Mischel’s 2014 book (at page 271).  Although it is very relevant to a subsection a bit further down, it is also extremely relevant here:

But arguably the best answer to the “What can we do to help our children?” question is to model what you would like them to become.  How parents and other important figures in a child’s life do or do not control themselves – how they deal with stress, frustrations, and emotions; the standards they use in evaluating their own achievements; their empathy and sensitivity to other people’s feelings; their attitudes, goals, and values; their disciplinary strategies; their lack of discipline – all profoundly influence the child.

Mischel goes on to show that there is quite a bit of experimental evidence to back up this statement.


A big ask ?

You bet !


Talk about money


Being able to handle money competently is a very important life skill.  I encourage you to talk to your children about money as soon as you think they will understand what you are saying.  Once they start getting pocket money, or earning their own money, I would strongly encourage you to teach them about saving money. 

I note that there is a very useful resource available to help you with all of this: Scott Pape’s barefoot investor for families (this is available as an e-book if it is not available at your local bookshop). I would strongly encourage you to get a copy, and to follow the advice in it concerning what children should be shown and taught about handling money. 


Don’t expect children to do anything different from the behaviours you have modelled


At the end of the subsection on self-control above, I recommended, on the basis of a quotation from Walter Mischel, an American psychologist, that one way to teach your children self-control was to model behaviour that showed self-control.

A natural follow on from that is to note that you should never expect your children to do anything different from the behaviours that you have modelled.  You are wasting your time, and that of your children, telling them to keep their rooms tidy if you don’t keep your own room tidy.  You are wasting your time, and that of your children, telling them not to waste food if you waste food yourself. …  I could fill pages and pages with similar examples, but I think you get the idea.  Actually, it won’t be a complete waste of time – it does serve to show children what the concept of hypocrisy is, even though it might still be some time before they can connect your behaviour with that word.

Now, of course, as with lots of advice I give, what I have just said is a bit simplistic.  For instance, if you are a smoker, you may still be able to credibly advise your children to not follow your example.  But to do that, you will need to acknowledge the incongruity between the behaviour that you exhibit and the behaviour that you are advocating, and have pretty good reasons why the former behaviour needs to continue to exist.


A very useful thing to instil in children


There is something that you can try to teach your children that will greatly help them throughout their lives.  In fact, there is really no teaching involved – rather, it involves instilling something in your children.

It will cost you, and them, almost nothing – in fact, it can save them considerable amounts of money over the course of their lives.  It will cost you almost nothing to instil it.

It is something that will increase their independence.

It is something that will give them moments of great pleasure from time to time.

It is something that will greatly enhance the pleasure that they can get out of travelling.

It is something that will help to keep them healthy throughout their lives.

It is something that will help them to think, and to improve their productivity at pretty much whatever they do.

It is something that it’s a great thing to do with you, a partner, or anyone else.

It is something that provides a great means to discuss important things with other people, and to talk through problems.

It is something that will provide them with an experience equivalent to meditation should they so wish.

Hopefully it is obvious by now.

Yes, if you can instil in your children a love of walking, you will give them one of the greatest gifts that it will be possible for you to ever give them.

Walking is an incredibly useful thing to be able to do, and to do.

Sure, almost everyone can do it.  But did you note, I did not say what should be taught was “walking” – no, I said that what needed to be taught/instilled was “to love walking”.

Unfortunately to be able to instil a love of walking you need a qualification that few people have these days: to instil a love of walking effectively, you need to love walking yourself. 

If you don’t have a love of walking, it is something that is incredibly easy to acquire, provided you want to.  Just get out there and do it !  Start slowly with a 15 or 20 minute walk.  It doesn’t matter where you are, or what the weather is like.  Of course, if you are in 2 minds about this, perhaps heading out in a mini-gale isn’t the best idea – perhaps wait until the weather is a bit friendlier, but by that I don’t mean wait until spring or summer.  I mean wait until the gale has passed by.  Go out and see what the world is like just after a spell of bad weather. 

What should you walk to see ?  It doesn’t matter.  You are walking for the joy of walking – you don’t need a purpose or destination.  Of course, if there is a park or creek or the like within walking distance, you might want to walk to that and experience the grass, trees, water, sights, sounds, or whatever else might be there.   Do a bit of that and hopefully you will be hooked.  Once you are hooked, try to get your children hooked. 

How often should you walk ?  Ideally, every day.  That may be too ambitious a target when you start off, but it’s a useful target to aim for.  If you are just starting off, a couple of times a week is probably a good initial target.  Of course, if it is possible to get out at lunchtime, a walk every lunchtime would be a great target.  Wherever you’re at, if you have to miss a walk here or there, or a few times in a row, so what ?   It’s not a problem.  Just walk again when you next can. 

Oh, hopefully it’s not necessary to mention, but walking while using your phone is not walking – it’s using your phone.  The point of walking is walking.  Ideally you don’t want to take your phone with you at all, but I know these days that’s completely unrealistic for most people.  But if you take it, resolve to only use it to answer important calls.  Emails and texts and unimportant calls can wait.


Does walking to and from work count ?  As long as it takes at least 15 minutes or so, you bet it does !


Children are the future


The final thing that I want to mention about children is something that it is useful to try to remember when your child has just done or said something that has you thinking the darkest thoughts possible about why you gave birth to them.

Your child is an integral part of the future of humanity.

Your child is your contribution to that future.

Whatever has just upset you is only going to be a blip in your history, let alone the history of humanity.  In fact, it is likely to be something that will be water under the bridge within a short period of time.

The quicker you can get yourself to focus on that longer term view, the quicker the horribleness of the moment you are in now will pass.

Changing topics, it is also very useful to keep in the back of your mind that there will come a time when you will no longer be around physically.  If you want to still be around in other ways, the easiest way to do that is to make sure that you have done your best to equip your child to deal successfully with the world to the best of their ability.

You had parents.  They each had parents.  Each of those parents had parents …  Your child is the continuation of a very long line.

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