Growing Up Responsible

Growing Up Responsible

By Marianne Riess

Your high school junior daughter is invited to a party, but she has a big test the next day. Will she forego the party to study for the test? Your college freshman son has a paper due, but would prefer to watch a football game in the lounge with his friends. How confident are you that he will make the right choice?

The ability to stick with an unattractive, but necessary task rather than leave it for a more pleasurable activity is called self-regulation. It has its roots in early childhood experiences where the child learns to control unacceptable impulsive behavior, delay gratification, stick with tasks that are challenging and/or unappealing and in this way to become a responsible member of a group. Self-regulation is obviously an essential factor in whether the child succeeds in the future in school and in life.

As an early example, take clean up time in nursery school. Some children do not like to participate at clean up time. The classroom is a mess, the task can seem overwhelming, maybe they are not used to cleaning up at home. They just don’t want to. Non-participation will not be a good thing. Other children will tattle on the non-cleaner, the teacher will not be pleased, and the child will get a reputation for not cooperating. By making small, reasonable requests at first, and acknowledging the value of the child’s help, the teacher can set him or her on a path to cooperation with clean up. The teacher also needs to explain, gently and often, why cleaning up is necessary, and why everyone has to be part of the process. Studies show that when children feel a request is reasonable and makes sense, they are more likely to acquiesce. Eventually clean up becomes part of the child’s daily routine and is done without constant prompts and praise. The child internalizes the notion that everyone has contributed to the state of the classroom and everyone has to clean up. He or she has taken a step on the road to citizenship.

Delayed gratification is a big part of the self-regulation concept. The child learns to postpone what he would like to do until he has finished what he has to do. In a young child, that could mean not leaving the writing table to play with the trucks until he has written his name correctly. In elementary grades, it could be not watching TV until homework is done. In older kids, it might be foregoing that party or football game to study for the test or complete an assignment. Self-regulation is what helps a young adult say no to an experience he or she feels will be unproductive or maybe even dangerous, even when others are doing so. They have internalized the concept that some behaviors can negatively affect their futures, and so they can choose not to participate in such activities.

Self-regulation may be defined as the ability to control one’s own behavior and emotions and adapt them in response to a particular situation. It enables children of all ages to make productive and responsible choices, and to persevere when work gets challenging. Life offers many opportunities for adults to encourage and help children develop self-regulation. Success in school and life depend on this vital ability.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.

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