Can Self-Control Be Enjoyable?

A few days ago, a visitor to this site sent me an article by Alfie Kohn, whose message is that traditional schooling isn’t working. Why get kids to pay attention to didactic lessons and complete long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration? “Focus less on ‘fixing the kids’ and more on improving what and how they’re taught.” He's vocal in his opposition to teaching children self-control.

Kohn is right to point out that we need to look deeply at why our children struggle to pay attention in school. We should strive to improve our educational system. But ignoring the merits of self-control will not help.

Pay No Attention to That MarshmalloW

Kohn points to psychologist Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, which showed that children who could wait longer to eat a desirable treat fared better later in life. Because the children who waited longer distracted themselves with enjoyable activities, he concludes that self-control wasn’t needed at all.

In Mischel's Marshmallow Test, children who could wait longer for their treats, fared better in life

Kohn doesn't count the fact that these children exercised self-control over their own attention. They deliberately withdrew their attention from the tempting treat in front of them and onto imaginative activities, such as closing their eyes and telling stories, singing, or sitting under the table. With no toys to capture their attention, they exercised intentional, effortful voluntary attention. Mischel named this type of self-control, “strategic allocation of attention.”

Kohn doesn’t explain why his definition of self-control relies on an absence of enjoyment, which seems unnecessarily Puritanical. The reason we practice self-control is for greater, not less, pleasure, and self-control works best when we keep that in mind. Self-control is about having more choices in life.

We want our children to feel a strong connection between sustained effort and reward. When they listen attentively or complete a long assignment, feelings of accomplishment follow. They won’t feel the same excitement as a video game win, or the same burst of dopamine (the brain chemical associated with reward). They will feel a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction, self-respect and pride, a sustainable pumping of dopamine in their brains that will motivate future effort. And most importantly, they'll be strengthening the "top-down" brain pathways that need to control their own attention.

Help Kids Build Self-Control

As parents, we can

  • Be aware and improve our own attitudes when we feel discouraged and frustrated. Attitudes are contagious.
  • Work with our children’s teachers to keep long assignments sufficiently doable
  • Guide our children to develop strategies, for example, teaching kids to break their long assignments into small goals with periodic deadlines
  • Help kids learn that getting started is the hardest part, like jumping into a pool
  • Help kids understand that when work gets hard, “I can’t do this” is a thought that expresses frustration, not a certainty and a reason to quit.
Attentive Students building Brains For success

Childhood is a critical time for the formation of neural pathways that support executive functions such as voluntary attention -- another name for “strategic allocation of attention.” Due to processes known as brain plasticity and synaptic pruning, childhood experience plays a key role in engraving brain circuits that will endure. Give your child experience with self-control so he can build a brain that equips him for success.


Kohn, A. (2014). The Myth of the Spoiled Child. (New York: Da Capo Lifelong Books).  Kohn’s article, “S’More Misrepresentation of Research” is adapted from his book.

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test. (New York: Little, Brown & Company). The landmark study showing that self-control -- strategic allocation of attention -- predicts future life success better than any other factor. (See page 18: “Nothing else was on the table, and no toys or interesting objects were available in the room to distract the children while they waited.”)

Palladino, L.J. (2015). Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers. (Boston: Shambhala). Includes several chapters describing voluntary and involuntary attention, self-control, and the brain.

Special thanks to the reader who took the time to notice my reference to Mischel's work and send me Kohn's article. I invite you to share your ideas as well.