Parenting and the Science of Will Power

I recently read the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written by research psychologist, Roy Baumeister, and science writer, John Tierney and published in 2011.  In the book, the authors describe an experiment in which college students were asked to fast and were then seated at a table with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, chocolate candies, and a bowl of radishes.  Some students were invited to eat the cookies and candy; the unlucky second group was instructed to only eat radishes.  The researchers then left the room and observed them through a hidden window.  The “radish group” stared longingly at the cookies, and some even picked up a cookie to smell it.  However, despite their evident struggle with temptation, they were all able to resist eating the cookies.

Afterward, the students were taken to another room and given a set of geometry puzzles to work on.  They were told that they were being tested for intelligence, but the problems were impossible to solve.  The researchers really wanted to see how long they would work before giving up.  The students who had been allowed to eat the cookies and candy typically worked on the puzzles for about 20 minutes before giving up, as did a control group of students who fasted but had been offered no food.  The “radish group” gave up, however, after only 8 minutes.  This experiment, and other research conducted by Baumeister, indicates that willpower is not something we have or don’t have.  Instead willpower is more like a muscle that can be fatigued with use.

Baumeister’s research provides an excellent lesson not only for those who wish to avoid eating cookies but also for families.  Parents often believe they must correct each and every one of their child’s misbehaviors in order to mold their child into a responsible and thoughtful human being.  However many parents are inconsistent with discipline and routines.  They may correct and give consequences throughout the day, only to be exhausted by the evening, throwing up their hands and saying, “Do whatever you want!  I’ve had it!”  Or they may start the week out with an elaborate schedule for the entire family, only to find it forgotten on the refrigerator by Saturday.

Baumeister’s research validates conventional wisdom that parents have passed down for generations: “Choose your battles!”  We must pick just a few things to work on with our children.  If we try to correct every bad choice, we deplete our willpower resources and may not have them when it really counts.  Instead we should pick two or three things to focus on with our children.  For example, I may not comment if my 5-year-old forgets to say please when asking for the potatoes, but I quickly step in if she shows us the food in her mouth or interrupts while someone else is speaking.  I believe it’s important to use nice words, but for now I’m concentrating my energies on teaching her good table manners – and on being able to finish a sentence!

We must also keep willpower in mind when considering our children’s behavior.  Last year my family went to a fancy steak house to celebrate a birthday.  My daughter and my nephew were so excited and so well-behaved – at first!  However, the service was slow, as is usual in many nice restaurants.  The children sat without fidgeting as we passed the bread basket.  They used their “inside voices” during the salads, and they shared their plate of chicken strips cheerfully during the main course.  Then, just before the dessert was brought out, they made a break for it – running under waiters’ legs and knocking over patrons’ purses.  My daughter followed this up with a dance routine of sorts in-between the tables.  I suppressed an urge to shake her vigorously (I really wanted to try that chocolate mousse) and instead I calmly said, “I see it’s time to go home.”
The children had clearly used up their willpower.  To scold my then four-year-old or put her in time-out would have been pointless.  She had done her best, and it was my job to take her home and allow her to recharge.  On the drive home, I thanked her for her good behavior.  She had spent two hours behaving well, so I chose to forget the final ten minutes of chaos.  She demonstrated that she knows a lot about how to behave in a nice restaurant, and I had a carry-out box filled with chocolate mousse!

-Erin Finn, Family Life Educator

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