Teaching self-control when self-control does not come naturally. It takes just a few minutes to see that in a room full of small children. The good news is that self-control or self-regulation is something we can teach and help cultivate from a young age.
What is self-control, and how much does it matter?
There are several ways to define self-control, including willpower, self-discipline, and conscientiousness. But regardless of how you define it, self-control is the capacity to control oneself.
Some of the most significant developmental growth in self-control happens between the ages of 3–7. By this age, our children are ready for us to guide them in controlling their impulses, managing big emotions, and being resilient.
One of the most valuable gifts we can give our children is the ability to self-regulate. According to research, children who develop strong self-regulation skills perform better in school, have better relationships, earn higher wages as adults, and have greater overall career success.
Family stability, physical health, and overall happiness are also predicted by self-control. All these aspects of our lives necessitate discipline, intentionality, and good habits rooted in self-control rather than self-esteem.
It’s not so much about encouraging a sense of achievement. Still, healthy self-control leads to good choices, which leads to good habits, which are the building blocks of healthy self-esteem. Here are 3 things you can start doing to develop your kids’ self-regulation skills.
- Out of sight, out of mind – helping kids avoid the temptation
High-functioning adults have been known to lose willpower when they see a doughnut. Changing the environment is an excellent tool for maintaining self-control (Duckworth et al., 2016). Keep temptations at bay!
For young children, this could mean putting away a toy that is likely to cause conflict during a playdate or avoiding the grocery store’s sweets aisle when shopping together.
It may mean keeping electronic distractions away from areas where children do homework for older children. With older children, however, you can go a step further: teach them how to identify temptations independently and take the necessary action to eliminate them.
Kids who stay out of trouble — and achieve more — aren’t necessarily endowed with greater character strength. They are more adept at anticipating and avoiding situations that elicit impulsive behavior.
- Be an example
Your child will learn from you if you lack self-control and act accordingly. When they see you overeat, spend too much time in front of screens, or do whatever else may be considered bad behavior, they’ll think it’s okay for them to do the same.
This is especially important when we respond to our children’s big emotions. Suppose we respond with disapproval or dismissal to our children. In that case, we show less control than when we turn towards them with compassion and kindness. By yelling, “stop that!” or responding to challenging behavior with “If you keep it up, I’ll just ignore you,” we show limited self-control towards them. Even more critical, our responses don’t help our children control their emotions in positive ways. Telling them to cut it out or get over it makes their emotions bigger. They might push them down, but inside, they’re torn up.
Instead, explore your child’s emotion, identify its cause, label it, and help them work through it.
Unfortunately, parents can do things in direct opposition to developing self-control. Instead of teaching their children, they don’t always get their way; some parents believe they have to ensure their kids don’t get upset. For example, when a child throws a tantrum because they can’t have a cookie, many parents will give in because they are too embarrassed by their child’s behavior. In the past thirty-plus years, parents have gotten it into their heads that they need to satisfy their children’s every desire. They feel guilty if they make their children upset or have to wait for something. But giving in constantly just to avoid upsetting your children teaches neither patience nor restraint.
- Give gentle reminders
If your child is about to lose control, gently remind them to stay calm and make wise decisions. Researchers discovered that regular gentle reminders keep them on track and help them make better decisions than they would otherwise.
- Avoid rewards
If we reward self-control, children will start to think it’s only worth being controlled if they can get a prize. We want them to recognize why it matters and make their own decisions. Star charts and treats mean our child isn’t controlling herself – we are!
Having control over our lives is our own reward. When we reward our children for exercising self-control, we control them! The rewards are in charge of controlling. They don’t need us to control them if they are intrinsically motivated.
- Remember that kids need autonomy.
Kids all over the world have similar feelings about adult authority. They are willing to comply with some of our rules and requests. However, there are limits.
When children perceive us as interfering in their personal lives, they are more likely to rebel. For example, telling them what to wear or insisting they engage in a particular recreational activity.
Adults can try to be bossy, but if children believe we are overreaching, they will conclude that our authority is invalid. They may react with open defiance. Or they could sneak around behind our backs. In any case, their refusal to cooperate does not imply a lack of self-control.
So, consider your child’s need for autonomy if you appear locked in a battle of wills. You may be able to adjust your demands and inspire more cooperation. When you talk with your child, consider their point of view.