Teaching Kids Self-Control

"Tommy, quit teasing the dog!"

"Susie, are you still working on your homework? What have you been doing all this time?"

"Janie, I thought I told you no more cake!"

As parents, if we had a nickel for each time we reminded our kids to stop bickering or put away their toys, we'd be vacationing in Bermuda right about now. Why does it seem like our kids are constantly grabbing, pestering, hitting, yelling, complaining or procrastinating?

They may be great kids, but they don't always have great self-control.

Why is self-control important?

To put it into everyday terms, self-control is your child's ability to stop and think before acting. This, of course, gives your child a much better chance of making a good choice in a given situation, such as deciding not to argue about a video game or hit his sister. In another sense, self-control is the ability to remain goal-directed in the face of temptation to stray off course, such as choosing to stick with homework when the temptation of social media is just a click away.

Self-control is a lifelong challenge and one that benefits from good habits that are established early. Social psychologist and university professor Walter Mischel found that kids who displayed greater amounts of self-control at even age 4 went on to earn better grades, were more popular with peers and teachers, were less likely to report problems with drug use and earned higher salaries as adults.

It's worth noting that a determining factor in these children's success was self-control — not self-esteem. The problem with telling kids that they are winners and champions before they have won or championed anything is that a false sense of achievement is encouraged. Self-control, on the other hand, leads to good choices, and good choices are the building blocks of self-esteem. A child who exercises self-control in her choices regarding school work, home relationships, friendships and extracurricular activities will find that healthy self-esteem is not far behind.

The verdict is in: Self-control is a good thing, and it's not just the researchers who think so.

The Bible and self-control

The book of Proverbs extols self-control by encouraging us to seek wisdom and understanding, to be intentional in our behavior and to control our words. Consider this sampling of proverbial wisdom:

"Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." (Proverbs 10:4, NIV)

"If you find honey, eat just enough — too much of it, and you will vomit." (Proverbs 25:16, NIV)

"A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control." (Proverbs 29:11, NIV)

Moving to the New Testament, the apostle Paul includes self-control in a list of the characteristics God wants to develop in us: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

A lifelong challenge

Self-control is an ability that develops over time. Think of it as a muscle that can grow stronger or weaker, depending on how much you use it. So it is with all of us who have spent hours in the gym, and so it goes with self-control. All of us, myself included, have to exercise it on a regular basis if we want it to be there when we need it.

Consider, for example, the man who finds himself home alone for an evening with plans to get caught up on some overdue work, only to "accidentally" discover that there is a Bourne movie marathon on television. Ninety-six percent of men will not only choose the Bourne marathon over catching up on work, but they'll also order a deep-dish pizza to go with it. What about the other 4 percent? NASCAR.

If you think you would fare better, consider some other common areas that require self-control, such as consistent exercise, controlling one's temper, time spent on electronic devices, spiritual devotions or simply sticking to a budget.

Five keys to nurturing self-control

If you want your children on a self-control workout plan that would make even Mr. Olympia proud, here are five keys to building your kids' self-control that you can begin right away. You don't even need a pull-up bar or a gym membership.

Foster good habits. What do good habits have in common? First, we don't always feel like doing them. Second, if maintained, they tend to bring positive results. It is the first characteristic that helps to build self-control. Every time your kids engage in a good habit (like brushing their teeth, putting toys away or completing their homework, especially when they don't really feel like doing it), they build their self-control muscle just a little bit more.

Encourage responsibility. In an age-appropriate way, allow your kids to be responsible for their own behavior. In other words, if Susie loses a toy that you have repeatedly asked her to put away, don't rush out and buy her a new one. For younger kids, establish a morning and bedtime routine (you can post it in their bedroom and bathroom) and help them learn to complete it on their own. For older kids, assign reasonable household chores and make it their responsibility to remember to do them (although an occasional reminder is OK).

Enforce limits. Part of how kids learn self-control is to experience what happens when they do not exercise their self-control. If your child responds in a disrespectful manner toward parents or siblings, then he needs to learn the right lesson, which is that it would have been much wiser had he more carefully considered his choices before acting. A timeout or appropriate loss of privilege will help your child or teen learn that exercising self-control and making a respectful choice is always the best way to go.

Hit the pause button. Remember, self-control can be seen in the ability to stop and think before making a choice. Let's take a look at each component.

Stop: This means to stop talking and pause all action for a moment. It can be helpful to give your kids something to do while stopping, so taking a deep breath is just what the doctor ordered. (Notice that you can't talk while taking a deep breath.) Stopping and taking a deep breath has never gotten a child in trouble.

Think: Once your child has paused, she gives herself the chance to do something important: think. Thinking flexibly means looking at a situation from a different perspective. What follows are four questions your child can say to herself that will help her think flexibly about any situation, build self-control and increase the chances of making a good choice. Customize this list with your child, write it on a piece of paper, and memorize it together so these thoughts become automatic:

What is a good way to handle this?

What would God want me to do?

Is it really a big deal?

Should I check with a parent?

Encourage delayed gratification. This is the ability to expend effort on a task with no immediate reward. Eating a candy bar, for example, is immediately gratifying. Eating vegetables is often less immediately gratifying (at least from a child's viewpoint), but the payoff is the long-term reward of good health. Be on the lookout for ways your kids can engage in tasks that require delayed gratification, such as saving money, practicing a musical instrument, exercising, studying for tests or (for younger kids) completing puzzles.

One final note: When you see your kids working hard on tasks that require delayed gratification, make sure to let them know that you are proud of their effort. A little encouragement goes a long way.

Meet Tony

Tony is an 11-year-old boy I once knew who was so excited about the release of a certain new video game that he would have been willing to trade a minor appendage for it. You can imagine Tony's disappointment when he learned that he would not be getting the game immediately upon its release due to the price of the game.

So Tony launched into full "pester mode," confident that his relentless persistence would eventually wear his parents down and earn him his coveted game. Tony was making a mistake that many kids make. Pestering was not going to bring him any closer to the possibility of getting this game.

Tony never did get that new video game, but he learned some important lessons in its place. Tony found that pestering lost him the use of the video games he already had, and, to his utter amazement, he discovered that he was actually able to survive the post-apocalyptic horror of not being able to have every new game that came out. Tony also chose to start saving his money so that he could buy new games (that his parents approved of) if he didn't want to wait for Christmas or his birthday.

Establishing a self-control workout may not turn your kids into Mr. or Ms. Olympia, but it will help them become adults who have learned the value of working hard, respecting others and getting their work done before they watch that Bourne marathon.

Dr. Todd Cartmell is a child psychologist and the author of five parenting books, including 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids.

Copyright © 2014 by Todd Cartmell. Used by permission. 

This appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2014 by Todd Cartmell. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

You Might Also Like: