It only took two weeks of school for my 11-year-old to get into trouble. In Australia that means publicly being called up to the principal, having to explain yourself in a letter to your parents, and being “grounded” for lunch recess. I don’t know what a pupil would have to do in Sweden for this to happen! Here, there was apparently a rule that older children were not allowed to cross over to the younger children’s part of the schoolyard. Even if my daughter didn’t know that rule, she will have known that getting into a fight with a younger kid was not a good idea. The thing was the amygdala firing away again (see the post on Our representation of the world for more on this ancient part of our brain) when a friend’s little sister from prep class came crying for the fourth time, reporting that she had been hurt by a year 1 student. Unfortunately, the amygdala firing away is only an explanation for why my daughter felt it imperative to help the little girl’s older sister intimidate the offender, not an excuse. This would have been the time for self-control to take action.
Self-control, or delaying our (emotional) responses, has to do with analysing and understanding the consequences of our actions and being able to restrict our impulses in accordance with that analysis. In the famous “Stanford marshmallow experiment”, four-year-olds were told that they could choose to either have a marshmallow right away or wait 15 minutes and get two. Provided the child likes marshmallows, this is actually quite cruel. The kids are seated at a table with the marshmallow smelling beautifully on the plate right under their nose.
On the original videos of the experiment you can see how the children employ all sorts of strategies to endure the 15 minutes once they have made the decision they want two marshmallows later. Others give in or simply lose their focus on what the objective was in the first place and pop the marshmallow in their mouths. The consequences of being able to understand that you will get two marshmallows if you can restrain yourself, and being able to act upon that, are huge. The children who had developed this kind of self-control, the “high-delayers”, at age four had better education and better health as adults, and were less likely to become addicted, have trouble with the police, or become single parents.
So as a researcher I am a bit concerned. By eleven years of age, breaking rules should be a conscious choice and not a consequence of an impulse or just not caring enough. As a parent, although I don’t love the idea of being the mother of a child who had to go to the principal on the second week of her new school, I am grateful. If my child is to learn self-control, a skill in fact possible to improve, we need to be many adults around willing to take on the role of setting limits with clear consequences. Hopefully, this helps her internalise that control so she herself can exert it next time without the need of external reinforcement.
But in all honesty, the rebel in me smiles. It’s not like I wasn’t in detention a few weeks into my new high school in Chapel Hill, NC. I had been late to school, missing the school bus by seconds. Ignoring my self-control altogether, I set out to hitchhike to school in pure protest. I was very lucky not to end up in four pieces in a black plastic sac thrown into the ditch somewhere, raped and mutilated. I am glad that I was allowed to learn a lesson by cleaning the school windows on a sunny Saturday morning instead. Sometimes you need to break rules, especially stupid ones. Sometimes, there is no option, but following your heart, knowing the consequences can be dire. But ignoring rules altogether and not exerting any self-control is not a socially viable option. From the look on my daughter’s face when we got her at school on Friday I am hoping she has started to understand that.