Locus of Control

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D.

One of the more consistent findings in the field of psychology concerns the concept of "locus of control." People with a strong "internal" locus of control tend to be highly successful and quite happy in life. People with a strong "external" locus of control tend not to do well and, more importantly, tend to be chronically miserable.

What do we mean by locus of control? It is a matter of placing the responsibility for one's success or failure. If you have a strong internal locus of control, you believe that success or failure is a result of your own sufficient or insufficient efforts. If you have a strong external locus of control, you believe that success or failure depends on factors such as luck, fate, circumstances, and the actions of other people.

It is interesting to note that locus of control typically forms fairly early in life and can become clearly evident by the elementary school years. So, take for example, a spelling test in second grade. Two students get A's and two students get F's. One of the A students is asked, "How come you got an A on that test?"

The student replies, "What do you mean? Yesterday, while the teacher was going over the words, I was paying attention. Last night I studied. I came into school this morning prepared, so, of course, I got an A."

The other A student is asked, "How come you got an A on that test?"

He replies, "I don't know. I got lucky. The teacher happened to test us on the words I know how to spell."

One of the F students is asked, "How come you failed that test?"

He replies, "Well, yesterday, when the teacher was going over the words, Tommy and I were fooling around in the back of the classroom. We weren't paying attention. And last night, I was watching television and never even looked at my notebook. I was totally unprepared for this test. I really blew it, but I can do better next time."

The other F student is asked, "How come you failed that test?"

He replies, "I don't know. I'm not good at spelling. And I don't think the teacher likes me."

With the two A students and the two F students, the same result has two different explanations. And those explanations reveal rather clearly which children will do well and which children will do poorly in the future.

Shaping locus of control is not an exact science. However, it is obvious that parents can play a tremendous role in determining whether it ultimately becomes internal or external. Regrettably, many mothers and fathers miss out on opportunities to guide their children in the right direction. Furthermore, operating with good intentions, they often do things that are counterproductive to the desired outcome.

Most parents have no problem attributing their young child's success to the child's own efforts. A child who gets an A on a test or hits a home run in a baseball game is rarely told "You got lucky" by his mother or father. On the other hand, when another child does better than their child, in an attempt to make their child feel better, they will often attribute the other child's success to luck.

Consequently, it is imperative for parents to examine the concept of luck and be careful about explaining it to their child. There is no doubt that external events enter into the success or failure equation. But they are not the sole or even most critical element. Unsuccessful people view luck as some mysterious force.

Successful people simply describe it as preparation meeting opportunity. And while opportunity may be in the hands of outside entities, preparation is up to us. Therefore, parents must always give credit where credit is due and use the success of others as a valuable example for their child instead of simply dismissing it.

The more insidious problem is the way in which many mothers and fathers deal with their child's failures. It doesn't feel good to fail, and parents are reluctant to add to their child's woes by laying on the blame. They routinely comfort their child by pointing out relevant factors that were beyond his control and justify their actions by saying, "We didn't want him to feel guilty."

Frankly, I don't understand why guilt has gotten such a bad reputation lately. Guilt is simply the psychological equivalent of physical pain. Physical pain is unpleasant to experience, but it is extremely valuable. It lets you know that something is wrong. Imagine breaking your leg and feeling no pain. You would keep walking around, causing further and possibly permanent damage. Guilt is no different. It is uncomfortable to endure, but it lets you know something needs to be rectified.

Of course, allowing someone to suffer excessive or unnecessary pain or guilt is inappropriate and may cause damage as well. The key to encouraging a strong internal locus of control without doing psychological damage is to consistently focus on the child's actions rather than his personality.

A child who fails a test should not be told "You're stupid" or "You're lazy." Instead, he should be admonished that he did not pay enough attention, did not study enough, etc. His mistakes should be illuminated and he should be encouraged to perform up to his true capabilities in the future.

One more thing deserves special mention. That is the issue of "learning disabilities." When a child is having difficulty in school, there is a tendency to assume that there must be something wrong with the child. He must have some kind of brain abnormality or "crossed wire" that prevents him from mastering the material. Consequently, he is labeled as "learning disabled." And that label essentially tells the child that he is defective, diseased, or disordered in some way that makes him unable to do what other children can do.

Experts in human development will tell you that this is an extraordinarily dangerous series of events. In reality, every child has a unique rate and pattern of development, and every child has an individualistic learning style. Since schools are designed to do everything with everyone at the same time and in the same way, it sometimes happens that there is a mismatch between the child and the system. In other words, the child may be having difficulty because his rate, pattern, and style are "different" than most of the other children, but that does not mean he is "disabled."

Regrettably, the use of the term "disabled" leads to what is referred to as "learned helplessness." And this is a major characteristic of people with an external locus of control. Parents and teachers don't want the child to feel guilty about his difficulties, so they tell him that "It's not your fault. You have a disability."

The child subsequently develops a "can't do" attitude. When faced with challenging tasks, he backs off. And when he does accept a challenge and fails, he points to the conveniently provided villain that is his learning disability.

I don't mean to denigrate the entire field of special education, nor do I mean to take learning difficulties lightly. But mothers and fathers must be careful about how their child is allowed to orient himself toward those difficulties. If he is told, "You can do it, you just have to do it differently or do it later than the other children are doing it," there is a good chance he can emerge with his locus of control in the right place.

Helping your child develop an internal locus of control isn't easy. But it certainly helps to keep thinking that it is up to you, and you can do it.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. He may be contacted via e-mail at
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