On the latest episode of Lifehacker's podcast The Upgrade, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman talked about self-control (what he called "cognitive control") and its importance as a skill we should all learn as early as possible.
Cognitive control is an important life skill: it lets you keep your mind on a long-range goal and ignore distractions, lets you pay attention to what the teacher is saying ... there was a study done in New Zealand on children ages 4-8, they tracked them down in their 30s and found that childhood cognitive control was a better predictor of your wealth and your health than in your thirties than either IQ or the wealth of the family you grew up in.
We tracked down that study, and indeed, the results are impressive:
Following a cohort of 1000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control.
So how do you help your child with self-control? One way is through mindfulness meditation. Do you send them to an ashram for a few months or years and wait until they return an enlightened yogi? That would be impractical, and they probably won't serve mac and cheese there.
Instead, try teaching your child to pay attention to their breath with the help of a stuffed animal. This is a technique that Dan Goleman had seen in practice at a school in East Harlem, with impressive results.
These are kids who are dirt poor, they live in the housing projects across the street, and they're traumatized and [many of them] have ADHD — I thought it would be chaotic in that class. But it was very calm, very focused.
The reason? Daily sessions of "breathing buddies": practicing mindfulness of the breath with the help of a stuffed animal. (Note: you don't need to use a stuffed animal — kids could use any object, or even just their hands. But if you've got a little kid, chances are they're going to prefer the stuffed animal.)
Here's how it works:
- Have your child lie down and place a stuffed animal on their belly.
- As you count to three, they will breath in through their nose, filling their belly with air. They should watch their stuffed animal rise as they inhale.
- Count to three while they breathe out, watching their stuffed animal gently lower along with their exhale (and their belly).
And that's it! The website Blissful Kids recommends doing five to ten rounds of belly-breathing to get started.