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Sam Wang is an associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.  Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking[…]

Two things that are intuitively obvious to most parents – the importance of teaching children self-discipline and the educational power of fun – are also unusually well-supported by science.

It is not necessary for learning willpower or the teaching of willpower to be unpleasant for the child. In fact, the learning of willpower in children is most effective when the child is having fun. When children play, they’re learning more, they’re relaxed, they’re happy. 

There’s an innovative program called Tools of the Mind in which
three-year-olds and four-year-olds are taught to restrain themselves, but they do
it in a way that’s fun. Children are taught to engage or asked to engage in elaborate play. So for instance, if you want to
play, “Honey, what are you going to do today?” And then the child
says, “Well, I would like to have a tea party.” And the preschool teacher or the
parent says, “Okay, have a tea party.” And then you come back later and if the
kid’s had a tea party, great. If the kid hasn’t had a tea party, you can say, “Well
you said you were going to have a tea party, so where’s the tea party?" And
so you set up the cups and the plates and all that stuff. And it’s this elaborate
game involving make-believe, pretend, in which the child has to engage in a long
sequence of steps to do something that’s fun. And those fun things can build up
self-restraint and willpower.

Another example is a simple trick where if you want kids to listen
when it’s their turn to listen, you can give them a little cardboard picture of an
ear and say, “Okay honey, when you are holding this ear, it’s your turn to listen
and you should listen. And when I give you this little mouth, then it’s your turn to
talk.” And you know, talk, listen, talk, listen. And the nice thing about that is that
it’s what is often referred to as a mediating object, where the child has a thing
that she can look at and say, “Hmm. It is time for me to listen,” or “it is time for
me to talk.” And this mediating object and those mediating activities can help
children focus on an external object that helps them build up their reserve, their
ability to restrain themselves.

These interventions, these very simple interventions that don’t
cost very much money, can lead to better outcomes in being ready to read, in exerting self-control, and in other
measures of what’s called executive function by the age of four. And so just a
year of that can lead to improvements in executive function that you can measure
in the laboratory and also possibly serve them well over a longer period of time in real life.