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Teaching Children Self-Control

Teaching Children Self-Control


Your six-year-old seems to have no concept of self-restraint. If he sees something he wants, he wants it now! If he gets angry, he sometimes lashes out. ‘Is this normal behavior for a child?’ you wonder. ‘Is it just a phase that he will outgrow, or is it the time for me to teach him self-control?’ *


Today’s culture undermines self-control. “In our permissive culture, adults and children constantly hear messages that we should do whatever we want,” writes Dr. David Walsh. “From well-meaning self-help gurus to dollar-grubbing hucksters, we constantly hear that we should give in to our urges.” *

Early teaching of self-control is vital. In a long-term study, researchers gave a group of four-year-old children one marshmallow each and told them that they could either eat the one marshmallow right away or wait a brief period and receive another marshmallow as a reward for their patience. Later in life, as high school graduates, the children who showed self-control at four were doing better than their counterparts emotionally, socially, and academically.

The cost of not teaching self-control can be heavy. Researchers believe that the circuitry of a child’s brain can be altered by his experiences. Dr. Dan Kindlon explains what that means: “If we overindulge our children, if we don’t make them learn how to wait their turn, delay gratification, and resist temptation, the neural changes that we associate with strong character may not take place.” *


Set the example. How are you at showing self-control? Does your child see you lose your temper in a traffic jam, cut in line at the store, or interrupt others in conversation? “The most straightforward way to help our children develop self-control is to exhibit it ourselves,” writes Kindlon.—Bible principle: Romans 12:9.

Teach your child about consequences. In a manner appropriate for his age, help your child see that there are benefits to resisting his urges and a price to pay for giving in to them. For example, if your child is angry over being mistreated by someone, help him to stop and ask himself: ‘Will retaliation help or hurt? Is there a better way to deal with the situation—perhaps counting to ten and allowing the anger to subside? Would it be better just to walk away?’—Bible principle: Galatians 6:7.

Create incentive. Praise your child when he displays self-control. Let him know that it may not always be easy to suppress his urges but that it is a sign of strength when he does so! The Bible says: “As a city broken through, without a wall, is the man who cannot control his temper.” (Proverbs 25:28) In contrast, “the one slow to anger is better than a mighty man.”Proverbs 16:32.

Practice. Create a role-playing game called “What Would You Do?” or “Good Choices, Bad Choices” or something similar. Discuss potential scenarios and act out possible reactions, labeling them either “good” or “bad.” Get creative: If you like, use puppets, drawings, or another method to make the activity enjoyable as well as informative. Your goal is to help your child realize that having self-control is better than being impulsive.—Bible principle: Proverbs 29:11.

Be patient. The Bible says that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” (Proverbs 22:15, footnote) So do not expect your child to develop self-control overnight. “This is a long, slow process with forward progress, meltdowns, and more progress,” says the book Teach Your Children Well. The effort, however, is worthwhile. “The child who can hold off,” the book continues, “is in a much better position to hold off on drugs at twelve or sex at fourteen.”

^ par. 4 Although we refer to the child as a boy, the principles discussed in this article apply to both genders.

^ par. 6 From the book No: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.

^ par. 8 From the book Too Much of a Good Thing—Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.