Though this article is about teaching self-control to kids, let’s start out with a little bit of imagery. Imagine for a moment that you are at a family dinner table and realise that your food needs a little more salt. You have two choices; you could reach across the table and get it before anyone else does, or wait a minute and ask someone to pass it to you. Most adults have the proper self-control to pause and do what is appropriate in moments like this. They will wait and ask for the salt because it is the polite thing to do.
But what about kids? What does self-control mean to them exactly?
Well, believe it or not, self-control is something that is not inherent. It begins developing when kids are very young and continues into their 20s. With that noted, teaching self-control to children and supporting that effort while they are young is the pinnacle for forming patient adults and helps them thrive throughout their development years and beyond.
The Benefits of Teaching Self-Control to Kids
Have you heard of the famous marshmallow test?
This was a landmark test by a psychologist named Walter Mischel to determine how self-control and delayed gratification works in practice. During the test, they gave each child participant a choice; they could either have one marshmallow immediately, or they could wait 15 minutes and receive two.
Now, though most children wanted the two marshmallows, the real test was the waiting game to see if they would cave or not. After following the participant children through adulthood, the findings found that the children who could wait longer were much more successful and balanced emotionally, socially, and academically in life. They were also healthier and more law-abiding than the kids who couldn't wait for the two marshmallows.
What Does Self-Control in Children Look Like?
When we talk about self-control in kids, here are some examples of what it looks like:
- Thinking first before they react to something
- Waiting patiently without throwing tantrums
- Coping with anger and frustrations without outbursts
- Not interrupting conversations or talking over others
- Waiting their turn on the playground or when sharing toys
- Waiting to be called on in class rather than blurting out the answers
- Taking constructive criticism and using it to grow, rather than breaking down from it
If your child demonstrates these traits, then it means they have well developed self-control. However, if your child is resistant, unable to delay gratification, falls to pieces under stress, overreacts to minor obstacles, or gets anxious when they are in an environment that is unpredictable, then it means they could use some help in the self-control department.
With self-control being malleable, have the peace of mind that there are many ways you can help them to become more self-controlled, now and as they mature.
Tips for Teaching Self-Control to Children
Now, the other interesting thing that Mischel found during his marshmallow study was that the children who showed more self-control used varying, learnable strategies such as distraction, turning away from the marshmallow, and using their imagination to distance themselves from the temptation.
This highlights several things that you, as the parent or caregiver, can do to help your child develop more self-control.
- Talk About It. One of the best ways to help your child gain more self-control is talking about it with them. Share with them what self-control is, why it is good that they practice it themselves, and even give them some personal examples of you featuring self-control for them to reference. You can also have them reflect on when they may have used self-control in their day. This will help them see the value in it overall and entice them to continue doing it even when no one is watching or monitoring.
- Give Gentle Reminders. If there is one thing for sure, kids crave control. Because of this, if you push too hard for them to have self-control, there is a chance they may retaliate and unwind what you are trying to develop. Though this can happen, it does not mean you have to ignore or stop your efforts. Just approach it gently with small reminders here and there so they can stay on track and make wiser decisions for themselves.
- Stay Away from Self-Control Rewards. Alright, using rewards for positive reinforcement might work for training purposes, but make sure that your child does not see this as a means to an end type of deal. If you frequently reward your child for their self-control, they will be conditioned to think that self-regulation and control is only a good thing if there is something in it for them. Your goal is to help them recognize why self-control matters when they make their own decisions. Let them know that being in charge of their own life and choices is a reward all on its own.
- Make Them Wait. Just about any parent of young kids can tell you that the majority of them have a hard time with waiting. Nonetheless, practicing waiting is a great way to get them to work on their self-control and self-regulation. This of course is age dependent, but if your child is not in any danger and merely wants something for the sake of it, have them wait a bit rather than jumping to fulfil their demand then and there. This not only will teach them self-control, but will instil patience as well.
- Play Self-Control Games. Kids learn the best through play. So, make teaching self-control a fun experience for them. Some great games that offer self-control features include "Freeze," "Sleeping Lions," and "Red Light, Green Light." These games make your child follow directions, patterns, listen, and have the chance to make changes if they wish, all valuable aspects of learning self-control.
Conclusion - Teaching Self-Control Helps Kids in All Areas of Life
Did you know that there are three types of self-control?
They are: impulse control, emotional control, and movement control. And each one of them gives kids a better foundation to help them prosper in all areas of their lives, especially when it comes to being in control of their actions when socializing. This learned behaviour will help them make lasting friendships, build their self-esteem, and according to studies, attain better life outcomes, both money and happiness wise.
But remember, kids develop self-control at different rates, so don't get frustrated if it takes your child a bit longer to grasp it. Also, keep in mind that some kids may struggle with self-control due to other underlying things. Whatever you do, don't give up because they will get there eventually, and the work you put in now is the very thing that can give them the brightest future possible.
About Superpower Kids
At Superpower Kids we develop fun, engaging social and emotional learning programs for children aged 5 to 10 years. All our programs incorporate scientifically sound principals and activities. We have several programs that can assist you develop your child’s self-control, including Self-control, Empathy, Gratitude and Resilience.