Goals, Not Delays, Teach Toddlers Self Control

Reminding kids what they're supposed to be doing helps them make fewer errors, but asking them to wait has no effect.
(Photo: Elizabeth Pfaff/Flickr)

(Photo: Elizabeth Pfaff/Flickr)

Sunday morning, a certain reporter was awakened by a swift, albeit innocent, kick to the head. His son, not quite two years old, had come into the bed with his parents to sleep for a while, but was now antsy (hence the kick) and impatient for breakfast and playtime. The reporter recalls mumbling "hold your horses" in a vain attempt to teach the boy the virtue of patience—vain, because, according to new research, it's focusing on goals, rather than imposing delays, that teaches self control.

"Understanding why children struggle to inhibit inappropriate behaviors is of great interest to scientists, educators, parents, and policymakers," University of Colorado–Boulder psychology graduate student Jane Barker and Yuko Munakata, a professor of psychology, write in Psychological Science. "Inhibitory control not only is important in the moment, but also predicts important outcomes decades later, such that interventions during childhood could yield benefits."

When reminded of the goal, kids opened a bit shy of 20 percent of the boxes they were meant to leave shut.

Past research suggests that the way to teach self control is to make kids wait for the things they want. Indeed, kids who are forced to wait a few seconds before deciding which word to say or which box to open for a reward make fewer mistakes compared with others who are allowed to run wild. That's led some to argue that the delay itself helps dissipate the urge to shout random words or open every box.

But Barker and Munakata noticed that those experiments don't just make some kids wait; they also remind the kids of what they're supposed to be doing. Thus, it could be the delay, as others assumed, or the reminder that actually helped kids make fewer errors.

Barker and Munakata wanted to figure out which it was, so they got together 150 three-year-olds to partake in a box-search task. The experimenters presented each kid a series of boxes, with blue squares marking boxes the kids were supposed to open to retrieve stickers, and red triangles marking ones they were to leave shut. The experimenters divided the kids into groups, each with different instructions. Some kids saw the mark right away, some after a delay, and some were reminded of their goal—stickers!—while others were not.

Forcing kids to wait made no difference, but the reminders did. When reminded of the goal, kids opened a bit shy of 20 percent of the boxes they were meant to leave shut, compared with 35 percent if the kids received no reminders. Interestingly, kids who waited longer—on their own accord—made fewer mistakes than others.

Those findings suggest a broader lesson: "[T]raining a correlate of success can fail" and even backfire, the researchers write. In this case, forcing kids to wait doesn't have any effect, even though kids who wait make fewer errors—and researchers needed to sit patiently and think through what they were doing too. And about the kid kicking his dad in the head, well, that'll take some patience, I suppose.


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