Here’s one more take on Dr. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study, which I analyzed last Friday. If you recall, one third of the pre-K children were able to resist the temptation to eat the marshmallow for a full fifteen minutes.
The usual way to describe those kids was that they had self-control and restraint. But that’s not the only interpretation. Mischel described them as being able to distract themselves from eating the marshmallow. They pretended it was a cloud and held it in the air. Then they pretended the marshmallow was a plane, flying around in circles and coming in for landings. Or they smacked the edge of the plate and started a game to see how high they could flip the marshmallow. Or they pretended the marshmallow was a character. They weren’t supposed to leave the chair; coming up with scenarios with the wonderfully-scented marshmallow right in front of them wasn’t easy. But many of the kids who waited the longest found a way to turn that boring, unstimulating blank room into play time. The marshmallow became a toy. They were entertaining themselves.
Is it possible that the ability to entertain oneself, as a child, was what drove their future success?
We normally think the way to teach children self-control is to be strict as parents – when we say “no,” it has to mean “no.” Parents think self-control comes from demanding kids keep their hands in their laps, their butts on their seats, and their pencils off each other’s worksheets. At home, they have to go through dinner without sliding off their chair. In the car, they need to stop roughhousing with their siblings in the back seat.
But the success of the Tools of the Mind curriculum in teaching self-control flipped that logic on its head. Tools children spend an hour each day adopting a character role and acting out mature, extended play. The kids aren’t taught obedience; they’re taught self-direction. They’re motivated – they’re having fun. This daily practice develops strong attention systems, as they learn to better and better focus on their role.
How do you know if your child is able to entertain himself or herself? Well, according to Drs. Mary Rothbart and Samuel Putnam, authors of the Early Childhood Behavior Questionaire, it’s a simple question:
How long does your child play with their favorite toy?
If it’s longer than ten minutes, that’s a good sign – indicative your child can sustain attention and avoid distraction.
It’s when children are motivated and absorbed in an activity they love that their attention systems are turned on and operating at full power. Getting children into this state more often – which is what Tools of the Mind does – is what gives their attention systems a lot of practice.
Later on in life, kids will succeed not just because they can control their impulses, but because they can take an interest in a subject and truly apply themselves.