Building Relationships That Foster Self-control, Altruism, and Compliance

[Promote hope & will, competence]

Colin E. Johnson


Lily is almost three, and she just began ballet class. Not surprisingly, in the classroom, I see that she is dancing on a small patio, stretching her hands above her head and lifting her leg behind her in a clumsy, intensely thoughtful manner. I step in and get down to her level, smiling as she eyes my movements. She seems to be finished. So I clap lightly, saying with a smile: “You’re practicing your ballet.” In return, I expect a grin, a light in her eye, or an expression of pride.

“You stepped on my dancers,” she says, dryly. Her disappointment is palpable.

This is one of my great failures as a teacher—unknowingly tromping upon a whole troupe of performers.

“They’re hurt,” she tells me. I quickly take pretend Band-Aids from my pocket and mime placing them on the invisible dancers, hoping the child may forgive me and they all might someday dance again. I thought I was doing well, approaching her how I had. But my ignorance of her play led to a moment of relative disrespect, and I felt an urgent need to regain her trust.

From an early stage as a teacher I was taught that relationships with children were important; but it took time and reflection to learn how to build them effectively. There will always be individual missteps, like my trouble with Lily, but it is the overall impression that truly matters. Giving children more moments of trust means giving them the tools they need to truly be themselves.

In my previous article, I asserted that children deserve our trust because of the remarkable competencies they demonstrate in their daily lives. I also mentioned, however, that trust is reciprocal. For as much as children benefit from our trust in them, they also stride forward in their development due in large part to the security they feel in trusting us. The back-and-forth of trust—adults having faith in children, and children relying on adults—acts as a bootstrapping process in which both sides add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Working in a child-centered classroom, I have experienced this kind of interaction first-hand. Recently, in my classroom children have taken to building “offices” out of large wooden blocks, creating enclosures and stages in and on which they can play as anything from ordinary professionals to courageous superheroes. While these structures develop over the two hours of free-play time that our school provides, children step away to construct props from paper and tape, hunt for bad guys, or look for other friends. Each time, children look to a nearby teacher: “Can you save this for us?” We‘re happy to stand guard over this stage for their ongoing play, and, though it may seem simple, leaving their valuable structure in the hands of a teacher allows children to move to new areas and new materials to extend their play. The props they construct add complexity to the stories they tell and the roles they take on. The bad guys they defeat contribute to their sense of power, bravery, and morality. And the children they seek offer new and ever-important opportunities to test out and refine social skills.

This claim—that children are at their best when they trust the adults around them—is founded in more than the everyday experiences of a caregiver. Theory suggests a transactional model of development (Sameroff & MacKenzie, 2003), in which one person’s behavior elicits a reaction from another, causing a new behavior and reaction in turn. Though this action-reaction model may seem obvious in many ways, a great deal of research has also gone on to demonstrate how seemingly unrelated actions can influence essential parts of children’s development.

It all adds up to this: When children trust adults, they show higher performance in

  • 1: self-control,
  • 2: altruism,
  • 3: compliance.

Aren’t these all traits that we strive to instill in the children we support? Aren’t they all essential to their success, in school and beyond? When adults demonstrate trustworthiness and reliability children perform at their best, and therefore they illustrate their own competence to a higher degree, bolstering their overall development and continuing a cycle of trust with their caregivers.

Let’s look at self-control. A great deal of modern developmental psychology has been rooted in the so-called Marshmallow Test, originally developed by Dr. Walter Mischel in the mid-60s to measure children’s self-control, or, more specifically, their ability to delay gratification in order to receive a better outcome. The task was simple: A researcher visited with a young child in a spartan room and offered them a treat. The adult then said they were going to leave the room for a while, and the child could eat the treat. However, if they did not eat the treat, and waited until the researcher returned (up to 20 minutes!), they could have two treats! Mischel recorded if children waited, how long they waited, and the kinds of strategies they used to control themselves. The crux of the study comes with its follow-up: Mischel tracked many of these children throughout their lives, and the ones that waited for the extra treat tended to fare better on all sorts of outcomes, from health to wealth to academic achievement. Good things come to those who wait!

Of course, like any good study, there have been many, many follow-ups and refinements to our understanding of this construct, and one is particularly relevant to the Sunkissed Families mission. In 2013, Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin tested how adult-child relationships influenced children’s success on this traditional task. While Mischel’s work is most often noted for its relationship to children’s “self-control ability”—the psychological capacity to delay gratification—Kidd and colleagues also examined the factor of “established beliefs”—a child’s belief that their effort will, indeed, be rewarded.

They did so by establishing the researcher’s reliability—or lack thereof—prior to the traditional delay of gratification task. All of the children in the study were invited to participate in an art activity, drawing or playing with stickers: They could use old crayons or boring stickers now, or wait until the researcher returned with new crayons or exciting stickers. However, only half of the children received the promised desirable art supplies. The other half were told that there was mistake; they could use the old ones instead. Then children were presented with the typical marshmallow test—one now or two later.

Amazingly, children who experience reliable adults—ones who came through on their promise—waited an average of four times longer (12 min. vs. 3 min) before eating the marshmallow. The explanation? Children controlled themselves when they trusted the adults who made the deal; and if waiting didn’t pay off with the art project, there was no reason to wait for the marshmallows. Delaying gratification is the best decision only if you genuinely believe that the pay-off is actually coming! (Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin, 2013).

Beyond controlling one’s own behavior to get a better personal outcome, we also hope that our children generate the skills and the motivation to help others: We want them to develop altruism. A great deal of research has begun to demonstrate the seemingly innate altruism of young children (Gopnik, 2009). A classic method tests children’s helpful behavior by having a researcher “accidently” drop a pencil or a toy during an interaction. If the child stops what they are doing and picks it up, they have shown spontaneous altruism. And many children do!

Particularly interesting is the mediating role of the child-adult relationship in this honorable trait. In a recent study from Stanford University, researchers played with children before engaging in this task. When the researchers engaged in reciprocal play—such as passing a ball back and forth—children were more than twice as likely to help than when they had played side by side or simply read a book (Barragan & Dweck, 2014). That is to say, when the adults engaged in a trusting exchange, even one on a small scale, the children were more likely to be spontaneously kind and helpful.

How about compliance? Compliance is not just following directions, but is actually viewed as a child’s internalization of cultural norms and values (Wachs, Gurkas, & Kontos, 2004). You can imagine that high levels of compliance is the goal for many caregivers, not necessarily for the sake of classroom management or the sometimes elusive peace and quiet, but rather for the more profound intention of helping children develop into participatory, kind members of a community.

Importantly, mutually responsive relationships in toddlerhood predict internal compliance for children at age 4 (Wachs, Gurkas, & Kontos, 2004). This relationship between the type of adult-child relationship, itself generated by patterns among many individual interactions, carries over into preschool settings as well. High-quality care in classrooms is, in large part, marked by responsive teacher-child interaction, positive affect from teachers, and minimal use of negative control methods. In such an environment, children not only show higher rates of compliance to teachers, but also to their parents outside of school; and they perform better on other research tasks, such as delaying gratification (see above) (Wachs, Gurkas, & Kontos, 2004).

Note however, the ever-important principle that these relations are not necessarily causal. But, really, this is the point: Wachs and colleagues (2004) stressed “mutual responsivity” in their definitions of high-quality interactions: the adults and children crafted their behaviors based on what they saw in each other. One positive response sparks another, and another, back-and-forth, until a pattern emerges over time that influences the very core of how children perceive their relationships with adults and with the world around them—a relationship defined by trust. At the same time, lack of predictability, or predictable uncertainty, can spiral into perceptions of mistrust in others and the environment itself. In the end, the best thing we can do for children is to be consistent and reliable: If they know how we will respond, they can control their own behavior to match.


Colin E. Johnson
Manager of Programs for Parents and Educators
Head Teacher, Bing Nursery School
Stanford University


  • 1. Adult behavior influences children.
  • 2. Children reach their full potential with responsive adults.
  • 3. Adult reliability improves children’s self-control, altruism, and compliance.


Get our parenting tips straight to your inbox!

* indicates required
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons