Teaching Children Self-control

“Put it back right now!”

3 year old Sarah is in the toy shop with her mum. They are buying a birthday present for Sarah’s friend. She really wants the sparkly purple fairy wings that are on display for herself and starts to put pressure on her mum. Initially she asks nicely, with a pleading expression and voice. That doesn’t work so she starts whining. Mum doesn’t concede so she then tells her mum, in persuasive tones, how much she wants it. Mum wants to please her daughter and thinks the wings are very beautiful and knows how much Sarah would love to wear them. She forgets about her budget and succumbs to the urging.

4 year old Thomas is having lunch with his Nanna. He is hungry and wants his sandwich now, this instant! He bangs his plate on the bench and taps his cup annoyingly on the plate. Nanna feels obliged to hurry so that her grandson’s hunger can be appeased.

Jane, who is 2 years old, is tired of playing on her own after 5 minutes, and asks her step-dad, who is paying bills, to play a game with her. He tells her that he is too busy and that she needs to play on her own for a while. Jane starts whinging.

5 year old Jim is spending a few hours with his uncle while his dad works. Jim decides to ride his bike on the concrete driveway. Fred tells him that he needs to put on his helmet, but Jim says he’ll be careful and jumps on the bike without the head gear. Several minutes later, while the uncle is still looking for the helmet, Jim comes in crying. He has fallen off and knocked his head. Fred worries about his nephew for the rest of the day.

It is possible to teach improved self-control to children of all ages by having certain expectations, by using encouragement and deliberate ignoring, and by refusing to cave in to children’s demands. It’s wise to start early and to be aware of the child’s developmental level. Children are born with differing temperaments, but they can be expected to wait for things that they want, and accept that there are some things they won’t be able to have. Some children are more innately able to control their urges than others. There are particular situations where children find it harder to resist their urges eg. walking through a lolly isle in the supermarket or visiting a toy shop.

Teaching Children Self-control
Little boy riding a bike

The younger the child, the more promptly we need to meet his/her needs for attention. Eg. milk, cuddles, comfort, stimulation etc. As the child grows she/he can gradually be expected to wait longer for his/her needs to be met. Children naturally want many things eg. toys, food, clothing, play with an adult, help etc but that doesn’t mean that we should automatically give them what they want. Parents/carers often give unwisely when a child nags, whines, yells or when they are feeling guilty for some reason eg. working long hours, the child was injured in an accident, the child’s parents have split up. It is important to sort out wants and needs and to meet the child’s needs in a way that is respectful to the parents/carers and the child. Our goal should be to raise our child to be a decent human being, not to be popular with her/him.

It is easy to notice poor behaviour and to comment on that, but it is harder to find good behaviour and make a specific positive comment about it. This encouragement will boost the child’s ego and will have the effect of re-enforcing the favourable conduct. Playing down negative behaviour is a skill that can be learnt with practice. We need to tell the child once or sometimes twice to stop the unacceptable behaviour and then, if it is not causing physical damage to a person or object, it can be deliberately ignored. We can walk away or look away from older children. Our gaze can be diverted away from younger children, whilst keeping an eye on them, to ensure their safety. On the other hand, when our child tries hard, progresses in something, co-operates or excels in a task, we need to pay attention and comment sincerely on a regular basis.

Our children are tempted by many advertisements, enticing displays, friend’s possessions, as are adults, but it is vital that they learn to use self control so that they can get on well with others, be safer, follow directions, save their ( and their parents) money and decide what is important in the long term.

Teaching Children Self-control
Children playing in rainy day

It is a lot easier to start teaching our children to wait and think about something carefully before acting, than deciding to teach them when they are older. It is essential that we not give in to their wants whenever they are whining, crying, whinging, having a tantrum, yelling or hurting us. This doesn’t mean that our children are deprived, but we need to consider their requests carefully and let them know when or if they can have something, as soon as they ask properly. Refraining from too many don’ts and no’s and letting children know what they are allowed to do is helpful. It’s even better if we can remain calm and kind. Endeavouring to make tasks enjoyable, by creating games and being enthusiastic, works well too.

A degree of self – regulation generally begins at around 12 to 18 months. At 24 months a child is better able to use self control when a parent is not present. By about 36 months a child can internalise parental direction.

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