‘Give me a child till he’s seven, and I will show you the man’. (Aristotle)
Aristotle maintained that an individual’s personality is formed before their seventh birthday. The foundations of character are laid early in life, and to become happy and successful adults, babies and young children need the same sort of care: –
- Parents / carers who prioritise the infant’s needs; reacting swiftly to feed, change, comfort and keep the child safe.
- Stability and consistency. All children need predictability and routine in their lives.
- Pro-active parents / carers. Life presents challenges, but adults should demonstrate problem solving, rather than teach helplessness.
As Aristotle observed, by the time a child is seven years old, many aspects of their character, for example: confidence, self-esteem, problem solving and self-control will have been developed through interactions within their family.
The effect of a child’s life experience on, for example, self-control, is demonstrated by Walter Mischel’s famous ‘Marshmallow Test’. This test was designed to assess pre-school children’s ability to accept delay when receiving a reward. The children were given one marshmallow they could eat immediately, or promised two if they could resist the temptation to eat the first sweet while the adult left the room for a short period. Deferring an immediate pleasure for a greater subsequent reward like this is known as ‘delaying gratification’. Subsequent analysis of Mischel’s experiment acknowledged that the child’s capacity to delay gratification was not an inherent trait as was first thought, but rather related to the child’s prior life experience.
Key point – The foundation of self-control is trust. Parents who are responsive to children’s needs foster trust.
When the child felt their parents / carers were trustworthy, reliable and dependable, then they could resist the immediate temptation and wait for the second marshmallow confident that the promise would be kept. If, however, the behaviour of the child’s parents / carers was unpredictable and inconsistent, the child would eat the first marshmallow immediately.
Self-control is one important skill learnt early in life, that plays a major role in resisting temptation in later life: teenagers revising for exams even when they would prefer to go out, adults refusing a second helping in order to lose weight or saying no to a cigarette when trying to give up smoking.
As Mischel said: ‘We can’t control the world, but we can control how we respond to it.’