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?
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
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.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
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.
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
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!
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.
Be patient. 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.”
REWARD POSITIVE BEHAVIOR
Even toddlers can start learning self-control. “If a child cries and cries for a piece of candy at the grocery store and you give it to her, you have just taught her that crying is an effective way to get what she wants,” says the book Generation Me. “The next time she wants something, she will cry and whine because that worked last time. Instead, give the child treats for good behavior. Many parents cave in to a crying child because it feels easier, or because they can’t stand to deprive a child of something she wants. However, you’re depriving her of a lot more if you give in. Rewarding the child who asks nicely teaches social skills as well as self-control.”