We all dream of our little ones being successful in later life and fulfilling their potential. It tempting to assume that it’s all about their intelligence levels.
But research shows that while being clever is obviously an advantage, it’s not the most crucial pointer to later success.
At a glance
- How to help your child learn self control
- How toys can help
- Encouraging your little ones attention span
It’s actually far more important to have something the experts call ‘self-control’ or ‘executive control’.
Essentially, that means persistence, the ability to think ahead and plan, a healthy dose of curiosity plus a little self-confidence.
One study of 1,000 children from birth to aged 30 proved that those who showed signs of self-control aged three went on to become happier and more successful. Those who became easily frustrated, found it difficult to stick with a task or couldn’t wait their turn were three times as likely to end up poorer, with worse jobs. They were even unhealthier.
That eye-opening study isn’t the only one. There’s a famous American study from the 1960s and early 1970s called the Marshmallow Test, which was carried out on four to six-year-olds.
The kids were told they could either eat the marshmallow in front of them or have two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes. Those who managed to restrain themselves and wait for the greater prize (only one third could) turned out to do better at school later on and lead more successful, healthier lives.
So, every parent will want to know: can we somehow teach our kids to have these character traits?
The good news is that, while our genes do play a part – and we can’t do much about those, parents can help their kids develop self-control, planning and persistence right from the earliest age.
It’s important to create an environment where their self-control is always rewarded – so if you’ve promised them a treat at the supermarket check-out if they behave well in the trolley on the way round, make sure you honour your word if they’ve managed it (and add in a hug and some praise). They’ll be more likely to repeat the desired behaviour next time.
Throwing about random praise isn’t a good idea, either. ‘You’re so clever’ bigs them up in all the wrong ways. Try to praise their effort (“you’ve worked so hard on building that tower”) and give them strategies to try if something hasn’t worked out exactly as planned (“can you think of a way to stop the car sliding down the ramp?”). That way you’re giving them tips on how to learn from problems, bounce back and have another go.
You can encourage their attention span by choosing a game each day that requires a bit of concentration to finish, such as a jigsaw or matching game.
Keep it age-appropriate, though, and don’t do it for too long: in reality you can’t expect a toddler to have a concentration span of more than a few minutes, and if the game is too hard they will lose interest or get frustrated.
Construction play is another great way to promote persistence and self-control. Because it’s so absorbing for children, they are learning naturally that if they focus on the task in hand, good things happen.
Because there’s no one, correct way to play with blocks or bricks, they’re also learning to use their imagination, to problem-solve and to experiment. Try not to intervene too fast if something goes wrong, but suggest an alternative method (“how about using a bigger brick there?”) And they’ll soon see that persistence pays off when their tower is taller than they are. Beginners will love the Mega Bloks First Builders Big Building Bag (60 pieces). Or for more fun upgrade to the Deluxe Building Bag from Mega Bloks, which contains an incredible 160 blocks – enough for a fair few experimental towers.
You can also more about your toddler's development with our milestones chart.