Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Exam season is right around the corner, and I'm wondering how my teenagers are going to do. There are so many temptations, so many avenues for procrastination, so many ways and reasons to avoid the hours of mind-numbing studying that exams require.
I'll make sure they get plenty of sleep and plenty to eat and plenty of uninterrupted study time — I'll play my role as resident nag. But now that they're in high school, there's not much more I can do. How much and how well they study is up to them now — it's largely a matter of will power.
Where does will power come from? In many ways, will power means taking take the long view, and putting up with discomfort and unease in the present in order to achieve a goal in the future. If I forego the ice cream, it will help me lose weight. If I run ten miles today instead of five, I'll get in better shape. If I don't play that video game or go on Facebook or hang out with my friends and study instead, I'll get a higher grade on my exam.
But kids live largely in the present, and aren't always aware of the effects that actions they take now will have on their futures. Will power is a quality that becomes easier to tap into as you get older and have tangible evidence of the rewards of delaying gratification. Still, research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck seems to indicate that will power is a quality that can be strengthened and fortified — except there's a hitch: you have to believe that it can be.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Dweck and Stanford assistant professor Greg Walton write, "When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower."
These findings are encouraging, but where does this leave parents? One of my teenagers wants to go to a concert during exam week. His brother resists doing an easy extra credit assignment to nudge his grade a little higher. "It turns out will power is in your head," Dweck and Walton conclude. But it may take teenagers awhile to get the message.