Willpower. Self-control. Grit. Perseverance.
These concepts all pretty much mean the same thing. They all refer to the skill that our kids need to rely on when they need to complete an unfavorable task in the present in order to gain a big reward in their future.
Our kids need willpower (or self-control, or grit, or persistence – I’m going to refer to this global concept simply as willpower throughout this article) to help them complete a variety of tasks. Willpower is what allows them to study when they would rather play video games.
It’s the skill that enables them to master extra curricular activities such as instruments, sports, and the arts when they get frustrated and want to give up.
Willpower is the engine that drives our kids to complete household chores even though they don’t understand now that learning these important life skills makes them a more competent young adult later.
Our kids are also going to need willpower skills for important adults responsibilities too. It takes willpower to put in the time and effort needed to grow a career. Willpower is also an important element needed to remain in romantic and peer relationships when they become difficult.
Willpower is a skill that not a lot of our kids are born with, but I want to reassure you that it’s a skill that can be TAUGHT. Your child can learn to stick with an unpleasant task like homework, chores, or extracurricular activities long enough to make a positive impact to their future.
There is an abundance of scientific research conducted over the past several decades that shows us that willpower acts less like a finite skill (you have it at birth, or you don’t) and more like a psychological muscle that can be strengthened with practice.
The Science Behind Willpower as a Muscle – The Marshmallow Experiment
First of all, science tells us that willpower predicts academic performance WAY more robustly than IQ. For example, a very popular study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students. This study measured their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated (as measured by tests of their self-discipline).
This study found that the students with high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes, gain admission into more selective schools, earn fewer absences during the year, and they spent less time watching television and more time on homework. In addition, willpower predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the year as well. This study concluded that, “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable.”
What’s even more surprising is that academic performance in high school can be predicted when a child is only 4 years old – just by measuring their willpower!
In a very famous experiment conducted in the 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, the willpower of children ages 4 through 6 was tested. You might have heard of this experiment before. Many people call it “The Marshmallow Experiment” because it involved leaving these young kids alone in a room with a plate that had a big, fluffy marshmallow on it. The researchers attempted to tap into the children’s willpower by instructing them that if they did not eat the marshmallow while the researcher was gone, then they could have two marshmallows when the researcher returned.
Guess how many kids gave in to temptation and ate the marshmallow? A shocking two thirds of them didn’t have enough willpower needed to resist the treat!
But the researchers were interested in the one third of the kids that didn’t give in – what was so different about them?
It was noted that the kids who practiced willpower during this experiment used specific strategies to resist the tempting marshmallows. Some of them put their hands over their eyes so they couldn’t look at the treats. Others hummed or sang to distract themselves. A few determined kids even sat on their hands in order to control their impulses!
The researchers kept in touch with all of the kids from the experiment and they checked back in with them as they were getting ready to graduate from high school. They found that the kids who displayed willpower during the experiment ended up with better overall grades in high school and they scored 210 points higher (on average) on the SAT than the kids from the experiment who gave in to temptation. In addition, it was also noted that the willpower kids were rated as being more popular in high school than the other kids from the experiment.
One last thing about this experiment. A few years after the original experiment, a different set of researchers decided to try to see if they could increase a child’s willpower by teaching them specific strategies to use when they encountered temptation. They repeated the marshmallow experiment and found that the majority of kids were able to use their willpower to resist the temptation by using the distraction strategies that were taught by the researchers.
This is some powerful evidence that not only is willpower an important skill that all of our kids needs to master before they become adults, but that this skill can be strengthened.
Any child can learn this skill and use it successfully by the time the become young adults!
Resistance: The Enemy of Willpower
So why is willpower so difficult for our kids? One word: resistance.
I first heard of the concept of resistance while reading Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. This nonfiction book teaches readers who want to find success in areas such as writing, business, sports, and advertising what it takes to succeed in these competitive fields. Pressfield asks the reader, “What keeps so many of us from doing the work we love?” His answer: resistance.
Resistance is a psychological concept that does everything in its power to keep everything the same. Resistance keeps our kids from turning off the tv to do their homework. Resistance is that feeling of being “too tired” to practice 10 minutes more on the piano. Resistance whispers excuses into our kids’ ears such as, “Do it tomorrow” or “No one will notice” when they feel like giving up on an important task.
Resistance is the force that tempted the kids in the marshmallow experiment to eat the marshmallow before the researcher returned. In this case, the kids experienced resistance when they remembered how yummy marshmallows tasted. Resistance gave them the excuses they needed to justify eating the marshmallow before the researcher returned, instead of waiting and eating 2 marshmallows later.
Resistance is a powerful force, and teaching our kids how to handle resistance when they encounter it is how their willpower muscle gets stronger.
Strategies to Decrease Resistance and Increase Willpower
The first thing to know about your child’s willpower muscle is that, just like our physical muscles, it can get so tired that it can become less effective as your child uses it.
We know that our physical muscles can only get pushed so much before they become useless. For example, when we help a friend move into a new home, we can carry way more heavy boxes and furniture into the new home in the morning than we can later in the day. Our arm and leg muscles get tired and slow down.
This is very much like our willpower muscle – it also gets tired the more it is in use.
To illustrate this concept, let me share with you another experiment on willpower. Roy Baumeister, a very accomplished psychologist who has conducted decades of research on willpower and wrote the popular book called Willpower, conducted an experiment with college students in his lab in the 1990s. The students entered a room with a table, a chair, and two plates – one plate held cookies and the other plate held raw radishes.
Baumeister separated the students into three groups: One group of students were told to eat the cookies, the second group were not allowed to eat either the cookies or the radishes, and the last group – the unlucky group in my opinion – had to eat the radishes while gazing longingly at the cookies. While observing the students who ate the radishes, the scientists noted a lot of unhappy grimaces and groans. It was WORK to eat those raw radishes while looking longingly at the yummy cookies. All three groups of students were then given a geometry puzzle to work on.
The trick here is that he puzzles were unsolvable, and the experiment was to see which group would work longer on the puzzle before giving up. This is a pretty common way researchers measure willpower.
The group of students who ate the cookies and the group who didn’t eat anything at all worked on the puzzle for about 20 minutes before eventually giving up. The radish students, though, gave up after only 8 minutes.
Twenty minutes versus eight minutes is a HUGE difference – and the only thing to explain it is that the radish group appeared to use most of their willpower to power through eating the unappetizing raw radishes. They just didn’t have enough willpower left once they got to the puzzle task.
So, willpower strategy #1 is to ensure your child doesn’t “use up” their willpower unnecessarily on unimportant tasks.
One way to help your child conserve their willpower muscle strength is to reduce the number of decisions they have to make throughout the day. Decision fatigue – or the mental exhaustion from making many decisions – has been shown to reduce willpower.
Roy Baumeister conducted many experiments showing how decision fatigue affects many different people and situations – from CEOs making decision for their companies to tired judges who hand out harsher sentences at the end of the court day to college students who decide to play video games instead of study. Making lots of decisions tends to open us up to resistance when we need our willpower for more important tasks.
The solution to decision fatigue is to create a family schedule so that many of your child’s decisions are made for them. If they know that they eat an after school snack at 3:00, start homework right after that, eat dinner at 6:00, and go to bed at 8:00, then they don’t have to waste energy on making those decisions for themselves.
You can learn about habit routines further by clicking HERE.
Willpower Strategy #2 is to address any physical triggers that might invite resistance. I have always taught my private clients to the acronym HALTS when assessing their child for physical discomforts. This stands for (H)ungry, (A)ngry, (L)onely, (T)ired, and (S)tressed.
Most of us have difficulty completing an intense task if our bodies are hungry. I know that I’m not my best when I’m tired. It’s the same thing for our kids – if they are suffering from any of the HALTS discomforts, then they are using their willpower muscle to contain their discomfort instead of using it on the task.
If your child is hungry, then give them a snack. If they’re tired, make sure they’re getting to bed on time. If they’re stressed, help them talk about their worry and teach them some stress-reducing techniques.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence that tells us that the HALTS discomforts negatively affect willpower. I’ve already described many scientific studies already, and I don’t want this article to become a book, but, believe me, science says of the easiest ways to increase willpower is to address the HALTS discomforts.
Finally, willpower strategy #3 is to have a plan for resistance.
Resistance seeks out weakness, which is why the HALTS discomforts make it so easy for resistance to affect us; however, many of us have unique triggers to resistance too.
Some kids experience resistance when working on something difficult. Others invite resistance when they feel a lack of self-confidence to complete a task well. Still others are triggered by a loud or chaotic work environment.
Take the time to observe your child to see what tends to trigger resistance for them. Have your child explain to you (so they can learn for themselves) what resistance feels like. This way, they’ll be able to identify it when it occurs. Once they know resistance is happening, then develop a plan to overcome it.
For example, let’s say your child experiences resistance when their sibling gets done with their homework first, causing them to feel like a failure. Have your child explain to you what it feels like to them right before they give up. Maybe they have a self-defeating script in their head that tells them that they’re just not good enough. Next, create a resistance plan. This plan might be to repeat a positive script like, “I can do this and I’ll get done soon -it doesn’t matter if my sibling got done with their homework first.” The plan might also include to take a 15 minute break and then start working again.
Be creative with the plan. Make it individual to your child’s unique quirks and strengths. The important thing is that is has to be effective for your child (this means that you might have to “tweak” the plan several times before it really works).
Having a resistance plan also serves to reduce decision fatigue (which works against willpower). Identifying resistance and having a plan to overcome it is a lifelong skill that will benefit your child even when they’re adults.
Take Home Message
If you follow the willpower strategies that I described above, I guarantee that, over time, you will see some BIG changes in your child’s ability to stick with important tasks.
By the way, these strategies also work for adults. Reading Baumeister’s book on willpower made me re-evaluate some of my own willpower behaviors.
The important thing to remember when implementing any new strategy is to be consistent and give it lots of time to work. You will be happy that you spent the time working with your child on this important life skill.