Strategies for Teaching Self-Control
“I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.”
– Fred Rogers
The responders to the question “How do you teach children self-control?” provided lots of rich ideas. In addition to theirs, I have added some ways you can teach your children self-control in your day-to-day life. I’ve separated them into four ways that parents can teach any social and emotional skill: modelling, coaching, providing practice opportunities or experiences, and creating a supportive environment.
Point out your own mistakes and ways you are practicing self-control. We all have a need to feel control over our lives and sometimes that need pushes us into trying to do things perfectly. Although we know that learning requires mistakes, failures and missteps, sometimes it’s not apparent to children that we as adults make mistakes too. We tend to be all knowing in their eyes and sometimes we want to reinforce that thinking to have greater control over their behavior. However for children who are on a constant steep learning curve (meaning mistakes are a part of their everyday lives), it’s important to realize that all human beings make mistakes in order to learn. You, the seemingly infallible parent, can show that by naming it when you do. “See Mommy falls too,” was a recent comment I made when I fell in the hallway. Making children aware that it’s not only okay to make mistakes, but critical to growing and learning will only help your child become more willing to try new things and gain confidence. A powerful moment for your child can be when you are angry with them and you say, “I need to cool off so I am going to my room to be alone for few minutes.” Articulating how you are using self-control, particularly when it involves your children, can turn a difficult moment into a teaching opportunity for both of you.
Use logical consequences. Throughout childhood, boys and girls are learning about consequences. When I do this, what effect will it have on my environment and the people around me? Neuroscientists have found that the brain does not fully establish consistent rational, logical thinking patterns until the early twenties.[i] An obvious logical consequence is “You break it; you fix it.” But sometimes logical consequences require a bit more consideration on the part of the parent. If a child has hurt another child’s feelings, then a sincere apology may be an appropriate logical consequence. But a child may also need to be encouraged to make amends by doing something for the other child instead of just apologizing. If a child in anger intentionally destroys an object that is precious to Mom, then replacing the object may be in order along with a sincere apology and some time to talk about and practice how to appropriately express anger with a parent. Logical consequences will help children practice reflective thinking and show how, if a child does not use self-control in one moment, they still have a chance to use their self-control and repair any emotional or physical damage they have done.
Help your child work toward his/her hopes and goals. What is your child excited about at school or at home? Is she challenged by riding a bigger bike? Is she learning a new musical instrument? Is she struggling to make new friends? Coaching her through the process of articulating, working toward and achieving her goal will require her to practice self-control with a more experienced adult so that she is coached and supported along the way. Here are the steps that you, as her coach, might follow so that you are guiding her toward successful achievement of her goal.
- Help your child articulate her goal. Helping a child specifically articulate her goal can assist her, and you as her coach, in determining the steps required to achieve it. It’s even more powerful if the goal is represented on paper so that it can be posted and seen regularly. Involve her in writing, drawing or cutting and pasting magazine pictures to represent her goal.
- Talk through implementation steps. What does she have to do in order to be able to play the flute? Obtain sheet music and an instrument. Attend lessons. Practice three times a week. It’s easy to have a goal but learning and following through on the steps needed to achieve it can be challenging. Provide supportive coaching for these steps along the way and she’ll have a better chance of success. Also, provide reinforcing feedback and encouragement particularly when the goal becomes challenging and success requires repeated attempts.
- Talk about the rules or expectations to be followed in order to stay safe and act responsibly while pursuing the goal. If her piano teacher expects that she will practice a certain number of hours a week, then that becomes an expectation that can guide your child to meet her goal.
- Celebrate the small steps along the way. Call out when she reaches various milestones along the way. “Celebration” of the steps can be as simple as just giving an encouraging word and pointing to how far she’s come since she began.
- Celebrate and ritualize goal completion. Completing a goal is a big deal and should be properly celebrated. Does your family have a way that you typically recognize achievements? If not, then create a ritual. Go out for a special dinner or dessert. Take your children to a coveted place they usually do not get to go to. Allow them a leadership role in the family that is special because of their achievement.
Create Practice Opportunities and Experiences
Practice waiting. “Mooooommmm, I need a snaaaackkk!” you may hear from a distant corner of the house. Do you jump to get a snack when you are knee deep in organizing the closet or communicating with your spouse the logistics for the evening? Being a responsive parent does NOT mean jumping at every request. In fact, though it may seem counterintuitive, giving your children practice in waiting is doing them a favor. A family is made up of individuals with needs, all of which are important. If you are in the middle of a task, you can let your child know that they need to wait until you’ve reached a fair stopping point and then you can attend to their wishes. Of course, I’m not suggesting you make them wait if they are hurt or have an emergency but most situations during the day are not those kinds. Children can have daily opportunities to practice self-control if you allow them to wait. It also gives you the chance to respect your own needs and others in the family by not dropping everything to respond to your children’s desires.
Initiate cooperative games, learning or other activities. Cooperative games and activities require children to work out how they are going to play together. It gives them practice in setting rules and expectations and reinforcing those with others. That practice helps them internalize those rules and along with them self-control so that they begin to use the rules themselves. Playdates, school time, birthday parties and outdoor play are all opportunities to introduce cooperative games. You don’t need any special materials to encourage cooperative games. Recreating a story in dramatic play is an excellent way to spur children’s creativity while practicing cooperative skills. When I was young, we turned our backyard into a haunted “house” experience every Halloween and all of the kids in the neighborhood worked together (without adult intervention) to create it. We also cooperatively created imaginary commercials and video recorded them being performed (Thanks, Dad for that great idea!). “Simon Says” is an example of a game that encourages turn-taking in being a director or rule enforcer. This will give children practice in regulating others so that they can work on their own self-regulation. For more terrific cooperative games, check out the book Adventures in Peacemaking.[ii]
Reframe tattle telling and attempts to control others. If you watched a video tape of me as a child playing with the neighborhood kids, you might call me “bossy.” Many did. But in reality, I was developing self-regulation skills. All children begin learning self-regulation by first, watching others making mistakes and breaking rules. Children can see the mistakes made by other children much more clearly than they can recognize it in themselves. A child who “tattles” on another child is actually working on regulating others to help himself internalize and learn self-regulation.[iii] Often children are scolded for this behavior because many parents don’t realize this is an important part of their learning process. Parents may worry that their child is becoming a household dictator rather than practicing understanding and following rules and expectations. Instead of reprimanding a child for “tattling” on a sibling or friend, you can respond in a way that respects their learning process. Your child might say, “Becky just ripped a page out of the book and that’s wrong.” You might respond with, “I’m glad you understand that that’s not an acceptable thing to do but I’m guessing Becky is just learning that rule. Let’s go talk with her and see how we can help her repair the book.”
Try something new for fun. Introduce your children to a new experience or activity and then help them through the learning process. Recently I took E ice skating for the first time on his day off of school. I had forgotten how difficult it was to find balance on the ice and get into a rhythm. He fell a lot. He clung tenaciously to the side wall and to my hands as I tried to gain my own balance to support him. With gentle coaching and occasional words of encouragement, he kept going. And when I asked him if he wanted a break, he didn’t. He was determined to get better and not fall. And he did, of course. A new sport, craft, musical endeavor or other activity that requires some skill will offer a fun, low pressure way for your children to experience the process of using their self-control to persist in learning a new skill.
Create a Responsive Environment
Be consistent with rules and routines. “I’m so tired. We don’t need go through the whole bedtime routine with books tonight,” might be an idea that’s rattled around in your head from time to time. Or “If I say no, he’s going to throw a fit. Am I up for the fight I know is coming?” It’s challenging in parents’ busy lives to be consistent with rules and routines. It’s even more challenging to create consistency between two busy parents who are on different schedules and have little time to talk more less coordinate rules and routine enforcement strategies! It makes sense to revisit rules and routines of the household periodically involving all members in the conversation (family meeting?) to ensure that all are in agreement.
Ultimately rules serve the purpose of helping all family members achieve their individual and collective goals. Adults need boundaries just as much as children. If children are allowed to enter into a conversation about the rules beginning with their own articulation of their goals for themselves, they come to understand that the rules help them achieve their dreams. As participants in the creation, children will be more willing and responsible participants in upholding your family’s expectations.
One of the standards in our household we reinforce daily is that all toys must be picked up and put away before bedtime. Does E always like that? No. But it is critical that the routines of the household are consistently upheld so that children are learning and practicing expected behaviors (and not confused by changing expectations). Children are also watching parents model their own self-control when they are tired and do not want to, yet again, say no or reinforce a limit.
Toilets overflow and flood the bathroom. Children get the flu but deadlines for blog articles must be met. And in the midst of it all, it often seems we have to focus on our own self-control to get through the day. A sense of humor helps. And an awareness that as we are talking with our children about their hopes and dreams, assisting them in trying something new or helping them mop up the bathroom floor, we are giving them practice in a skill that will serve them for a lifetime.
[i] Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O., Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., et al. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10): 861–863.
[ii] Kriedler, W., & Furlong, L. (1995). Adventures in peacemaking; A conflict resolution activity guide for school-age programs. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.
[iii] Bodrova, E., & Leong, D.J. (2007). Tools of the mind; The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. (2nd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.