When you tell a child "You’re so smart," you’re unwittingly encouraging a fixed mindset.
The basics of social behavior come from the brain’s emotional system, which is an important contributor to empathy and morality from infancy through adulthood. Babies often cry when they hear another baby crying, because knowing that another person is unhappy makes them feel bad.
Does knowing that sweets are dulces in Spanish help a child learn to resist a tasty treat? It may indeed, as people who learn two languages gain cognitive advantages that extend well beyond the ability to communicate with others.
Children whose parents were responsive at 18 months of age show more extended and imaginative play at four years, while children whose parents were directive spend more time in the immature pattern of merely touching or looking at toys.
As any parent of a distractible seven-year-old knows, the neural circuits involved in self-control are some of the latest-developing parts of the brain. This important set of abilities is worth the wait, though—as well as some parental effort. Parents can accelerate the development of self-control by encouraging their children to pursue goals that are challenging but not impossible, a moving target that depends on the child’s age and individual abilities.
Want your child to be successful? Help her build self-control. Most middle-class children already receive enough cognitive stimulation to develop intelligence close to its full potential. In contrast, many children have room to increase their self-control.
Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer. From May 2003 to April 2008, she was the editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, the leading scientific journal in the field of brain research. Before becoming an editor, she did her graduate work at the University of Rochester and was a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at Yale University. She lives in northern California with her husband, a professor of neuroscience.