The problem with this advice is that it requires a belief on the part of parents that they have control over their lives. It’s all well and good to talk about what parents should do to influence their children, but if those parents don’t believe that their choices matter – whether because their own parents robbed them of their self-confidence or because life has dealt them a difficult hand and they feel helpless – then my advice may fall on deaf ears.
The degree to which we believe that our choices matter and make a difference is called “locus of control.” A person with an external locus of control (LOC) looks at life from the outside, almost like they were an onlooker, waiting to see what will happen next. If you ask someone with an external LOC why they got a good grade on a test, or why they lost their job, they are likely to attribute those outcomes to causes outside of their control.
Common reasons for what life brings might be fate, luck, God, chance, or powerful others. Alternately, a person with an external LOC may truly believe that life is unpredictable. They may say, “There’s nothing I can do to change anything.” They may feel that the world, or society, is biased against them. They may feel that their life is in God’s hands, and there’s no way around God’s will. The point here is that an external LOC is comprised of a “hands up in the air” attitude.
In contrast, the person with an internal LOC attributes their successes and failures to their own work, effort and talent. This person may say to himself, “The reason I got an A on that test is because I studied.” Or, “The reason I didn’t make the team is because I need to improve.”
Notice that, when successes come, the internal LOC takes credit (“I deserve that. I worked really hard.”), and the external LOC passes it off on uncontrollable sources (“The teacher likes me; I got lucky; The stars were aligned”).
When there is a failure or mistake, the external LOC has an easy excuse for why it happened (“It wasn’t God’s will; I guess it wasn’t meant to be; This is what my life is like – it’s like the fates are stacked against me,”) and the internal LOC looks for reasons why the failure or mistake occurred, so that they can improve their chances for success in the future (“I guess I need to practice more; Next time, I’m going to practice my interview skills in the mirror; Time to go back to the drawing board and revisit my goals.”)
How this impacts your children
According to two recent studies, a parent’s internal LOC, measured at that parent’s child’s birth, is predictive of that child’s cognition at ages 4 and 8. Specifically, parent internal LOC is related to increased IQ scores, GPA and academic test scores. Let’s pause for a minute and think about that. Your beliefs about your life are connected to your child’s intelligence!
Why might this be? Let’s think this through. What kinds of behaviors might you see from a parent that would affect his child’s ability to reason, think about the future, or use perspective taking (some major components of intelligence)? According to the authors of these studies, there are an amazing number of answers to this question, which help make sense of the pathway from LOC to child cognitive ability:
1) Parents who believe their actions impact the future are more likely to take parenting classes before their baby is born, to read about pregnancy and parenthood, and to reflect on and communicate with others about the attitudes and strategies that they want to take when their baby arrives.
2) Parents with an internal LOC, perhaps as a result of all of the education they are pursuing about their baby, are more likely to eat healthy foods, and avoid alcohol, drugs and cigarettes while they are pregnant. When a mother is pregnant, everything she takes into her body passes through to her fetus. Vitamins and minerals benefit mother and baby. Alcohol, drugs and tobacco smoke act as teratogens, and poison the developing fetus in dangerous and irreversible ways.
3) Parents with an internal LOC tend to have a higher socioeconomic status (SES), which brings with it the economic resources to pay for health care, books, classes, and enrichment activities for their young children. People with a higher SES are also more likely to be surrounded by other people with an internal LOC, which provides opportunities to brainstorm and discuss solutions to parenting problems with other parents. In turn, having this access to other parents who are invested in intentional parenting practices, is a source of support that can help overcome life stresses and other challenges.
4) After baby is born, mothers with an internal LOC are more likely to breastfeed, which is known to be related to higher IQs. As I’ve written on my website, breastfeeding passes on a tremendous number of health, social and cognitive benefits to a baby. When a mother understands this, and she is able to breastfeed, she is incentivized to offer these gifts to her baby, and in turn experience the bonding that can occur as a result of the closeness, eye contact, and nonverbal communication that accompany the breastfeeding experience.
Changing your LOC
The good news here is that people are able to switch their LOC, with introspection and hard work. If you are reading this, and you resonate with the external LOC more than the internal, I would highly encourage you to take a look at the parenting practices that the internal parents use, and then add one or two of them to your schedule this week. Even if it feels artificial at first, your child won’t know. Instead, she will experience your positive regard, enjoy the time you are spending with her, and benefit from you sharing your wisdom about how to overcome obstacles. Just mimic what the internal LOC looks like, and pretty soon, you may find that your life seems more under your own control. It’s a powerful feeling, to go out each day and feel confident that you can accomplish what you set out to accomplish, and to know that after you have achieved, you can pat yourself on the back and give yourself the credit for your hard work.
Your child may also gain from your decision to act more in line with an internal LOC. Longitudinal research indicates that children who grow up with an internal LOC mindset (given to them by their parents) are likely to pursue more education, delay having children, and choose romantic partners and friends who have an internal LOC. They are also more likely to have regular sleep patterns, healthy eating patterns, and to respond to frustration with proactive behaviors like communication and problem solving thoughts, as opposed to whining, weeping and tantruming.
It’s all up to you. Truly. Your actions, words and beliefs matter. You are the main source of information that your child has about how to think about and live in the world. Show them that they are powerful, by recognizing your own power. Teach them the importance of lifelong self-improvement, by modeling your interest in growing as a person as you get older. Show them how to be organized and efficient, by following a schedule yourself. We want strong, courageous children, who have the guts to pursue their dreams. Your strength and courage, and your pursuit, are the keys to their success. Believe it!
Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.