“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” This was one of my father’s favorite sayings to me as a boy. I expect his father said it to him too. My father followed his own advice and was very successful. Going to bed early, resisting the temptations of staying out late, not sleeping late and instead being productive at the start of the day are all measures of self-discipline. There are many people I know that are ‘night owl’s’ who find they are most productive in the evening. As an ‘early bird’ my best time to complete an assignment or study for an exam was first thing in the morning. The advice served me well. I believe the point of this quote is less about the time of day, and more about the will power exercised to make the most of your waking time.
It was what Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) who wrote ‘Early to bed…’ over 300 years ago. Self-discipline seems out of fashion these days. As a father, I don’t remember passing that advice to my son or daughters when they were young. It probably did not really fit. They would have probably rolled their eyes if I had. We just want to have fun! That’s boring!
Our society now seems to reinforce the opposite of self-control. Temptation to indulge in any pleasure we want is less restricted than ever. All night restaurants and clubs, 24/7 shopping, binge TV watching and of course internet access to anything we want. We also work to excess these days – expected to be connected to work 24/7 and work way beyond the 35 hour week structure of days gone by. Perhaps it is harder to exercise self-control today.
A growing number of parenting experts are looking at the cause of problems in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. They are investigating the reasons for the increase in obesity, the increase in anxiety, depression and mental health issues, the growing use and dependence on video games, alcohol and drugs and the failure to launch of twenty-somethings into financial and psychological independence to success and achievement before they turn 30. Along with the ease of access to a variety of temptations, they are looking at how parenting has changed for the worse over the past three decades. They are looking at what parents are not doing to prepare children to be ready for adulthood. Some are pointing to the abdication of parental authority to peers, schools and doctors and the parental inclination of treating children as adults (Sax, 2016). Some point to the dangerous tendency of peers replacing parents for teens who need direction for values and identity (Neufeld and Mate, 2013) and others identify the trend to avoid saying ‘no’ and setting reasonable limits from toddler to young adult (Walsh, 2007).
In his book The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them like Adults, Dr. Leonard Sax writes that North American society has been neglecting to teach our children the virtues that past generations of parents did. One of these virtues, conscientiousness, is captured in Benjamin Franklin’s quote. Conscientiousness includes self-control, honesty and perseverance.
Dr. Sax claims that we now know what is required of parents to have good outcomes for their children. He asserts that what matters most in raising children to be successful adults is helping them develop conscientiousness. Longitudinal psychological studies measured personality traits of children and then followed them into adulthood. Successful, happy and fulfilled adults were found to score high on conscientiousness as children. This factor was more important than intelligence, academic grades, openness to new ideas, emotional stability, and friendliness at predicting whether a boy or girl becomes successful and satisfied in adult life.
While high intelligence predicts high incomes and low intelligence lower incomes, intelligence does not predict happiness. Conscientious people earn and save more money, are significantly happier and more satisfied in their lives. They are also more likely to have better health, less apt to be obese and live a longer life. Teenagers and young adults who are more conscientious are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or engage in risky sexual behaviour.
How Can a Parent Instil Self-control in their Child, Teen, Young Adult?
Conscientiousness is not a genetic trait or hard wired in. We can teach children, teens and young adults self-control. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Lead by using the ‘Premack’ principle: which states reward less appealing behaviors or activities with more enjoyable behaviors or activities.
- For a child this translates into: No dessert until you eat your vegetables.
- For a teen this means: No TV, Internet, or texting your friends until homework is complete.
- For a young adult this means: No free food, shelter, and paid cell phone, without demonstrated effort and success at college or university and if you are working while living at home you contribute with rent and/or chores.
- Teach by example. You can’t teach your child to exercise self-control if you don’t demonstrate it with regard to your use of your cell phone, TV watching, drinking, smoking etc. You cannot teach honesty if you don’t keep your word. And you can’t teach perseverance if you give up easily or take the easy way out.
- Give them the experience. The value of money comes from really hard strenuous work. Empathy for others comes from working with people who you are unfamiliar with – like at a soup kitchen with the homeless, at a hospice with the sick or at a long-term-care facility with the lonely and elderly.
In Ben Franklin’s world of the 1700’s it was practical to go to bed after sunset when it was dark and awake get up at dawn when the sun rose. The light bulb was not yet invented! However, he was a very healthy and extremely industrious man living to age 84, when life expectancy at that time was 39 and a successful publisher, inventor and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. More modern day examples of conscientiousness, perseverance and industriousness include:
- J.K Rowling, the author of Harry Potter who was penniless, recently divorced, and raising a child on her own, she wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript. A year later she was given the green light by Bloomsbury, who agreed to publish the book but insisted she get a day job because there was no money in children’s books.
- Steven Spielberg was rejected three times from the University of California’s School of Theater, Film and Television before deciding to pursue directing without a degree. He went on to win 126 awards from 231 nominations, including 3 Oscars, two times for Best Director, 7 Golden Globes two times for Best Director, three times as producer and 11 Emmys.
- Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. He was unable to speak until he was 4 years old and read until 7 years, was expelled from school and denied entry to Zurich Polytechnic Institute,
As parents, it is becoming more difficult to have a greater influence for your sons and daughters than the competition of their peers, social media, and the availability and convenience that technology provides. So we must keep work even harder on enriching our relationships with our children, teens and young adults as their parents (not as their friends), and to have the courage to do and say things that may not be popular, but instead promote character, self-control, honesty and perseverance.