Is self-control important or is it a rather out-moded, almost Victorian concept, which has no place in the modern world? On the one hand it invites images of cold baths and self denial while in contrast we are reminded of the planning and dedication that goes into training to be an Olympic class athlete or a nobel-prize scientist.
We all want children to have happy, confident and successful lives, so what part does self-control play in helping children to create and manage their own wellbeing? Self-control, or self discipline as some people prefer, is fundamental to planning and making choices. Self-control is the difference between creating a dream of a better life and having the practical means to make it happen. Impulsive people remain dreamers while those with self discipline take action and make thing happen.
Personally I feel the concept of self-discipline needs a style makeover or re-branding for the 21st century. Throw out the dreary notions of denial and narrow minded frugality which are left over from attempts to survive in a harsh pre-industrial world. Forget the notion of sitting on a bed of nails to learn to withstand pain or going for cross country runs in freezing temperatures. Developing self control is about strengthening the mental muscle which allows us to make decisions and stay on course. It is about stamina, optimism and a joyous anticipation of something worthwhile.
Being human gives us the power of thought and the ability to plan. We don’t need to be imprisoned in the moment or subject to whatever chance sends our way. We can choose not to be distracted by whatever turns up. You only have to watch a 2 year old for a short while to realise how bewildering a busy environment can be for a little one who cannot yet choose what to focus on. They go from one thing to another and back again. They haven’t yet learnt how to plan and see their choice through to success. No wonder they get so cross.
Choice is what makes life wonderful and so richly varied. We can choose things we cannot see in front of us and even invent things that don’t as yet exist. All inventors and scientists have not only a sharp intelligence, but also the persistence to pursue an idea from its first, fuzzy emergence into the finished concept. Making good choices creates the difference between a flourishing life and bumping along at the mercy of whatever comes our way. If we want children to be happy, confident and successful we need to make sure they learn how to flex this mental muscle and make choices which help them to grow and to flourish.
Professor Roy Baumeister and his team atFloridaStateUniversityhave spent many years researching self control, both the mechanism behind how it works and how to strengthen it. Their findings remind us that as humans we don’t have infinite power and need to use what we have wisely. Their 3 main conclusions are:
- We control (or self-regulate as psychologists call it) 4 different and very important processes: thoughts, emotions, impulses and performance. Managing thinking takes less mental energy than the other 3 and is certainly more effective than managing raw impulses. This is why children who understand why we expect certain behaviours find it easier to learn self discipline than children who are set rules they don’t understand.
- Self control improves with practice. The more children successfully learn to wait a short while for something or to hold their tongue and not share an angry thought the easier it becomes.
- Self control takes energy which is limited in any one day. We are more likely to loose control later in the day or if there is too much holding back required. Pick your battles is the conclusion here. If your child hates the supermarket either go early in the day or take it off their “to do” list if there is a lot on that day. Baumeister describes how the self control mechanism in the brain depends on raw energy, linked to glucose levels, so our self restraint goes down as our blood sugar dips. Yes we all get grumpier when we are hungry.
5 Golden Rules To Help Children Develop Self-Control.
1. Take small steps.
Children need to practise self control little and often. Gradually build up the time they can wait and the strength of the temptation they learn to resist. You may have heard about the 4 year olds offered 1 marshmallow now or 2 if they waited until the adult returned. That 15 minute wait was too much for many of them but would probably have been much easier in a few years time. Think joyful anticipation rather than stern self denial. Planning ahead for someone’s birthday or an outing or a special meal bring pleasure to the process. The final event is so much more appreciated and savoured too.
2. Focus on what is important.
Decide what will make a useful difference to the child’s quality of life. Think practicality rather than principle. Finishing what you start helps children make good choices and solve problems when something turns out challenging. Allocating set household tasks like keeping your bedroom room tidy helps children engage in necessary chores which are planned and predictable. Making a rule that we have cake/sweets on Sunday creates a balanced healthy diet while not denying that these foods do have a powerful appeal to our taste-buds.
3. Conserve your energy
The energy for self control can run out when over used so make sure you plan ahead. Your child doesn’t want to run out of steam just as they are practising an important lesson in self restraint. A busy, over-loaded life uses more mental energy than a more planned and streamlined existence. Children under 5 are particularly vulnerable to overload and stress as their ability to plan and focus is still very new. Think of your role as offering a supportive framework to help make learning self control easier.
4. Manage temptation.
Rules and routines are vital to establish family values and expectations. A rule such as “We have fruit for snacks” prevents a tired, hungry child throwing a tantruming when you refuse biscuits. Doing homework in a quiet space without access to TV, music or other distractions takes less energy after a busy day at school than working in a room full of temptations.
5. Celebrate success
If self control is a skill which strengthens through practice, then it needs to be treated as valuable and to be celebrated. Helping children set a goal and see it through without giving up or being sidetracked should be celebrated. The long term value of their achievement needs to be emphasised and enjoyed. Sometimes when a goal is distant, it lacks the power to attract by itself and the power of the short term distraction is much stronger. Adults can help children amplify the power and importance of the goal while discussing how to manage the temptation. Chunking goals into achievable steps sandwiched with some play, relaxation or treats will make the most of the limited energy we have for self control. Use, replenish and go again.
And don’t forget that self control is central to success because we can get going again after a set back. As Eddison is supposed to have said when he invented the light bulb “I did not fail 10,000 times I discovered 10,000 ways it would not work”