Your child’s success

By on May 15, 2011

Photo © Elena Derevtsova


Many people view high intelligence as the key to future success. Some parents are therefore disappointed when intelligence testing shows that their child is “just average”. To be average seems to be avoided at all cost! Anxiety about a child’s IQ and future has triggered a practice in some countries where even preschoolers have to take an IQ test to be admitted to selective  preschools. Moreover, trailing families might know of international schools requiring IQ testing before admission. This practice has become accepted regardless of the fact that all teachers and parents know of many children who thrive academically ‘despite’ an average intelligence, or children who are above average in terms of intelligence but have a hard time keeping up at school. 


Yes, there is of course a relation between intelligence and school performance (at least when we talk about middle-class culture), but this relationship becomes much weaker when we look at intelligence and future success. Moreover, you as a parent may have less influence on your child’s intelligence than you wish for; the evidence that environmental factors will increase a child’s intelligence is relatively weak. So how can you as a parent assist your child to be successful in life?  Well let’s have a look at some classic scientific studies to answer the question.  


Decades ago the psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel did an experiment with preschoolers. He wanted to know how these children handled their impulses. Each child was told that he could have one or two marshmallows. The child had to wait for an experimenter to run an errand and could either eat one marshmallow right away or -if he was willing to wait while the experimenter was away- he could have the two marshmallows when the experimenter returned. Imagine the temptation and torment! Some of the children ate their marshmallow right away.  Others were determined to wait -while sitting on their hands, trying to sleep, walking around in the room, distracting themselves by singing, covering their eyes, or putting their heads on the table. Briefly, it was a painful struggle between immediate and delayed gratification for the preschoolers. 


Dr. Mischel waited for these children to grow up and found striking differences between the two groups. Those children who held out for the second marshmallow did much better when in high school. Moreover, these adolescents were not only scoring higher on academic tests, but they were in general more adjusted, happier and more successful than the children who gave in to the temptation early. This indicates that self-control, i.e. managing one’s impulses and delaying fulfillment at a young age, casts a long shadow over a person’s ability to perform and be successful. More recently it has been shown that a better self-control is also related to better health, more wealth, and a lower crime rate across a time span of 30 years. This means that having self-control at a young age is a critical skill! 


But what makes some children able to wait and control themselves? It turns out that the crucial determinant of self-control is whether a child can control his attention and thoughts. When you teach a child mental tricks you can dramatically improve self-control. For example, Dr. Mishel successfully taught the preschoolers to pretend that the marshmallow was only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame. Now think about the implication of this for you and your child.  It thus makes sense to stop worrying about intelligence, but to teach your child self-control. Self-control is more malleable and it has more wide-ranging long-term effects. Don’t feel guilty when you refuse your child something and require the child to delay gratification.  You can help your child to be successful. Teach your child to think about something else and use silly mental tricks.  Self-control can be learned!


Dr. Marielle Gorissen-van Eenige is a registered Clinical Neuropsychologist working with TELL Children & Families and TELL Counseling Center. 

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