8 Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self-Control

The brain changes based on experience that is repeated. Every time kids voluntarily give up something they want for something they want more, they build the neural pathways in the frontal cortex that are associated with self-discipline. 

Notice if he never has to let go of something he wants, he doesn’t get the chance to practise controlling himself. The child is practising self-discipline only when he has a goal — for instance, two marshmallows soon (or maybe his mother’s approval) — which is more important to him than his immediate desire. For instance, one marshmallow immediately (or maybe to knock his little sister down.) That’s why permissive parenting, that doesn’t ask children to manage themselves in accordance with appropriate limits, doesn’t help children learn self-regulation. 

4. Self-Control is CHOOSING to give up what we want for something we want more

Notice this doesn’t happen unless it’s the child’s goal. When he’s forced to give something up, he isn’t practising self-discipline. The prefrontal cortex practises self-control every time it CHOOSES to give something up (that treat on the plate) for something it wants more (in this case, two treats.) When they’re young, children relinquish hundreds of impulses daily (grabbing the candy bar in the supermarket line, throwing their cup across the room, peeing on the floor.) 

Why would any child choose to overcome her impulse when she wants to do something? Because there is something she wants more than her immediate impulse.

That something is her warm connection with the parent, as long as that connection includes a sense of her self as valued and able to meet her needs. Over time, as she makes constructive choices, she begins to see herself as a person who acts in a certain way. (“I’m someone who washes my hands before eating…. who uses my words when I’m angry… who does my homework.”) So over time, what motivates her self-discipline (or what she wants more than her immediate impulse) is a sense of mastery and positive identity. 

5. Self-Control starts with the Self

Notice that the child has to make the choice to give up what he wants in the moment for something he wants more; he can’t feel forced. This is SELF discipline, meaning the motivation must be internal. 

(Alfie Kohn, with whom I agree about most parenting issues, questions whether “self discipline” is even a desirable trait to encourage. He defines it very differently than I do, however: “marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable.” That’s not “SELF” discipline as I define it because the goals come from outside of us.)  

So as a parent, “making” your child practise self-control won’t help the brain develop self-control. Instead, find situations where your child WANTS to exercise self-control. For instance: 

  • Play “Simon Says” or similar games. 
  • When your child hits a roadblock in pursuing one of his passions, express your conviction that “Yes, that’s hard…Hard things are worth doing… You can do hard things!…You have done hard things before, like x and y…..I am right here to give you support while you do this hard thing!”  

6. Empathic Limits give kids practice in self-discipline 

Every time we set a limit that our child accepts, she’s practising self-control. Sure, she’d rather keep playing, but she gets in the bath because there’s something she wants more than to play all night. No, not to splash all over the bathroom. What she wants is the loving connection with her parents. 

So punishment doesn’t encourage self-discipline because the child isn’t actually choosing to stop what she was doing: she’s being forced. 

Note that permissiveness doesn’t encourage self-discipline because the child doesn’t feel a need to stop herself. Setting a limit with understanding, so that your child is WILLING to accept it, is what helps your child develop self-discipline. 

7. Waiting is good practice — up to a point

There’s a common misconception, popularised by Pam Druckerman in Bringing Up Bébé, that kids in France learn better self-control than American kids because they’re trained early to wait for their parents’ attention and to follow rigid schedules. But Mischel never conducted the marshmallow test with French kids, so there’s no evidence that they’d do better on it than American kids. And there are no studies asserting that French adults are more self-disciplined than American adults. In fact, there’s no research showing that either French kids or adults have better self-control than anyone else.

We also know that rigid schedules are the opposite of responsive parenting, and that responsive parenting is associated with healthier emotional development, so at least that part of Druckerman’s theory doesn’t hold up against well-established science. 

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