The Importance Of Teaching Our Kids Self-Control

by Meredith Ethington
Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

Anyone who has ever had a toddler in the history of ever knows that it feels impossible sometimes to teach them the art of self-control. They want all the things, and they want them right now. Trying to persuade them to wait until their next birthday for that toy they want right that second, or trying to convince them they have to wait to have dessert until after they eat dinner, often seems like an insurmountable task.

Kids aren’t naturally inclined to wait for what they want, and so that means it’s our job as parents to show them how. Aside from the obvious examples — like if you eat an entire bag of movie-theater-sized Skittles in one sitting while camping, you might see those Skittles again later in the night thrown up in your tent (true story) — teaching your kids the art of self-control is crucial.

In “How to Increase Self-Control in Children — And Why It’s So Important for Their Success,” Karen Young considers a study out of New Zealand that followed children from birth to age 32, and the findings were fascinating. In a nutshell, kids who showed higher levels of self-control by age 5 turned out to be more healthy and successful in life.

Young writes:

“By the time the children were adults, children with the lowest self-control (compared to children with the highest self-control) were more likely to:

– have multiple health problems (27% compared to 11% of their less impulsive peers); – earn a low income of less than $20,000 per year (32% compared with 10%); – have a criminal record (43% compared to 13%). – have an addiction to multiple substances (10% compared to 3%).”

Before you get too discouraged looking at your 4-year-old and thinking he’s a lost cause because he just threw a giant temper tantrum about waiting until after dinner for another cupcake, all hope is not lost. There are a few things we can do to help our kids gain a little self-control, starting now.

According to Young, “The brain changes according to the experiences it is exposed to. When it is exposed to good experiences it will thrive. When it is exposed to less nourishing experiences, it will wire accordingly. During childhood, we can influence the experiences that our children are exposed to. We read to them, play with them and guide them towards safe experimentation with the world.”

There are some things parents can do early on to teach their kids how to practice self-control in their own lives. Parents can create situations where they can make a choice about delaying gratification. For example, offer kids a chance to get double the reward for something if they are to wait patiently or work hard at a goal they are trying to achieve.

Parents can also discuss beforehand situations in which their child might be prone to make an impulsive decision. Reducing stress in their environment by discussing the situation can guide kids toward making a better decision when they are confronted with a tough choice.

I love Young’s suggestion to ask kids the question “What would your future self say?” This could apply to anything from grades, to choices about friends, and everything in between. Since older kids can understand future consequences a little better, this is a great idea to help them maintain a larger perspective.

Other ideas include playing games around delaying gratification (think red light/green light), assigning chores to get them excited about future rewards, and setting healthy boundaries to instill the importance of rules.

In other words, you’re probably already doing a lot of things you need to do as a parent to help your child learn self-control. So let’s take a minute to give ourselves some credit.

My 5-year-old is just barely starting to grasp the concept of what tomorrow means vs. today and yesterday. So it’s okay if your kid can’t quite grasp the concept of waiting for something they really, really want. My youngest would rather have the toy right in front of his eyes right that second than believe me if I say there is going to be a bigger and better toy at the next place we visit.

If your child isn’t the master of waiting for what he or she wants, don’t worry. It’s normal, and their impulse control will improve as they get older. But for now, we can certainly start to help our kids understand that good things do come to those who wait. While they’re throwing a fit because we refuse to buy another toy train, we can pat ourselves on the back for setting them up for success later in life too.

Just remember that every once in a while, it really is okay to eat dessert first.