New Year. New Hopes. New Dreams. New Resolutions. Resolution # 1,052: Teach Children Self-Control. If on the list at all, it will never to be reached or accomplished because most New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by the end of January. But the consequences are too great for parents to abandon the effort, or worse yet, never strive to achieve it. Self-Control, also defined as self-discipline or the ability to delay gratification, is taught. It is not an inborn trait.
The Marshmallow Study
Dr. Walter Mischel, Ph.D., a renowned psychologist of personality at Columbia University, in the 1960’s, conducted a now famous research study known as “The Marshmallow Test”. “Mischel put marshmallows in front of a room full of 4-year-olds. He told them they could have one marshmallow now, but if they could wait several minutes, they could have two. Some children eagerly grabbed a marshmallow and ate it. Others waited, some having to cover their eyes in order not to see the tempting treat. Mischel followed the group and found that, 14 years later, the "grabbers" suffered low self-esteem and were viewed by others as stubborn, prone to envy and easily frustrated. The "waiters" were better copers, more socially competent and self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable and more academically successful. This group even scored about 210 points higher on their SATs. It is through this ability to delay gratification that one is able to reach long-term goals.” (http://www.parenthood.com/article-topics/article-topics.php?Article_ID=9736, accessed Nov. 2008)
Societies Out of Control?
Reb Bradley, in his article, The Importance of Teaching Children Self Control, states, “Societies do not get out of control – the individuals in them do. Self-control is the key ingredient of maturity. Any society which is out of control is obviously comprised of people who lack self-control. We, as a nation, have moral problems today, because our members do not have the ability to adequately restrain themselves. The bottom line is that our adult society did not learn self control as children. How much better off is that home or society in which the members are self restrained! A child who learns self-control does not habitually hit his brothers and sisters when he wants his way, and does not grow up to lie, cheat, steal, or murder.” (http://www.familyministries.com/self%20control.htm, accessed Nov. 2008)
Children, today, are growing up in a “now” society; instant cash from ATM machines, instant food from the microwave/drive up windows, instant entertainment on TV/portable DVD/IPods, etc. It is difficult to teach delayed gratification, waiting or working for something over a long period of time, to an instant society. Nevertheless, the effort is still worth it and will pay dividends in the lives of children whose parents invest the time to teach it. It may start with parents teaching themselves self-control and delayed gratification along with their children. The best news; it is a learned behavior, even for parents.
Parents are the ones who teach children to consider the consequences. Beginning early on, parents should set limits, teaching what would happen if a behavior was allowed. Doing so, develops the internal dialogue a child has to have with himself to monitor his own behavior. Talk about self-control with children. Discuss the importance of thinking before acting. Encourage children to delay gratification; save money for a more worthy object, share knowing their turn will come, practice improving skills (i.e., musical instruments, sports, math), putting effort into school work yielding desired grades, etc.
Acknowledge children’s efforts to control their behavior. Praise their willingness to work hard, share, think before acting, control their anger, etc. Model self-control; talk about strategies. “I want this ice cream, but I don’t need it. I am trying to lose weight and ice cream is not good for me right now.” “I really like this jacket, but I don’t need it. The family budget would suffer if I purchased it.” Parents need to give children the advantage of hearing their internal dialogue at times. It greatly influences their own thinking and teaches them by showing how parents use self-control.
Remember, children aren’t born being patient, controlling their emotions, thinking before acting, or considering consequences of behavior. Parents are the developing agents in children learning self-control. This year, make a resolution that doesn’t end in January. Use self-discipline and resolve to teach children self-control. It will advantage children, families, and society in innumerable compensations. The results will bring many “happy” years to come.
Suggestions on how to help kids learn to control their behavior:
Up to age 2: Infants and toddlers get frustrated by the large gap between the things they want to do and what they're able to do. They often respond with temper tantrums. Try to prevent outbursts by distracting your little one with toys or other activities. For kids reaching the 2-year-old mark, try a brief timeout in a designated area — like a kitchen chair or bottom stair — to show the consequences for outbursts and teach that it's better to take some time alone instead of throwing a tantrum.
Ages 3 to 5: You can continue to use timeouts, but rather than enforcing a specific time limit, end timeouts once your child has calmed down. This helps kids improve their sense of self-control. And praise your child for not losing control in frustrating or difficult situations.
Ages 6 to 9: As kids enter school, they're better able to understand the idea of consequences and that they can choose good or bad behavior. It may help your child to imagine a stop sign that must be obeyed and think about a situation before responding. Encourage your child to walk away from a frustrating situation for a few minutes to cool off instead of having an outburst.
Ages 10 to 12: Older kids usually better understand their feelings. Encourage them to think about what's causing them to lose control and then analyze it. Explain that sometimes the situations that are upsetting at first don't end up being so awful. Urge kids to take time to think before responding to a situation.
Ages 13 to 17: By now kids should be able to control most of their actions. But remind teens to think about long-term consequences. Urge them to pause to evaluate upsetting situations before responding and talk through problems rather than losing control, slamming doors, or yelling. If necessary, discipline your teen by taking away certain privileges to reinforce the message that self-control is an important skill.
(http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/self_control.html, accessed Nov. 2008)
Further On-line Help in teaching Self-Control: