Self-Control: Would You Eat the Cookie?

By Tom Slattery, Psy.D., LivingRite

Imagine you are four years old and your parents bring you to a strange place. Then your mother says, “Okay go with this nice person and I will be right here when you are done. You are escorted to a boring white room with no windows, a table, and a chair. The person then asks you to sit, hands you a cookie, and says, “If you wait to eat this cookie and show it to me when I come back, I will give you another cookie.” The person then leaves the room and the child is left with a decision. I know what you’re thinking, “What would I have done, if I (or my loved one) was put in this situation?” are you going to be the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street or are you going to delay the pleasure of eating the cookie and be more like Bert (from Sesame Street). Interestingly we find ourselves in similar situations all of the time. For example, think of the last time you were planning to do something and you ended up not attaining the goal (e.g. exercising, eating a healthy meal, or completing work). This example might be described as a situation that tests our resolve, how disciplined we might be, or our ability to delay gratification. Others might use words like impulse or self-control. These scenarios beg the question, how does this characteristic affect our loved ones and our own health. More specifically, what are some of the long-term effects of having self-control and is self-control changeable?

Children who act more like Bert rather than Cookie Monster have been found to be more successful as adolescents. Using the “Cookie Scenario” described above previous researchers have measured self-control (whether the child ate the cookie before the person returned) and examined these same preschoolers ten years later.  Curiously, the adolescents who had waited to eat the cookie and used some strategy to increase self-control (when they were preschoolers) were found to be more likely to have excellent self-control skills (as adolescents), be rated by their parents to be more attentive, organized, focused, and intelligent. Further these adolescents were found to be more successful in academic achievement and cope better with frustration or stress. With all of these positive outcomes that have been linked with how these children responded to a situation ten years ago, you might be asking yourself, “Can youth improve their self-control to make these positive outcomes more likely?”

Children can be taught to pause between wanting something now and acting on the impulse by thinking about options and consequences rather than impulsively acting without thinking. Helping a child to come up with strategies (e.g. telling oneself repeatedly, if I wait I can get two instead of just one), so they can get the other cookie.  This is one example of how youth can improve their self-control is through effortful practice. Specifically, through regular practice of small acts of managing feelings, urges, and thoughts will increase a person’s self-control with a number of problems. Problems that may be relevant for children include; frequent worries, persistent sadness/irritability, behavioral problems, or academic achievement are frequently influenced by a child’s self-control.

At Living Rite, we are committed to helping people with self-control problems. For example, we see many children and their families struggling with a child’s difficulty to manage his/her feelings, make choices or solve problems without putting much thought into a task, or an avoidance of situations in their lives that affect their home, school, or relationships. We are most helpful when we are able to teach these youngsters skills that will help them build self-control through consistent practice.   References used for this article are available upon request.