What is self-control? It is the ability to control our attention, our emotions and our behaviour when we really want to do something now, but we know it is wiser to wait. The opposite of self-control is impulsivity. Children who can control their attention, their feelings and their behaviour do better in school and are able to work towards long-term goals. Self-control plays an even bigger role than personality in how children do in school. The effect of good self-control also extends into adulthood, with better economic, social and emotional outcomes for the individual. Other words for self-control are willpower, self-discipline and self-regulation.

The marshmallow experiment: In the sixties a psychologist, Dr Michel, did an experiment with young children. He put them in a room and put a plate with one marshmallow on it in front of them. He told them that, if they could refrain from eating the marshmallow until he came back, they would get another marshmallow. He then left them alone for 15 minutes. Some children could not wait and ate theirs immediately. Others could wait and got another marshmallow. The cameras showed how hard it was for some to wait. They licked the marshmallow or rubbed it against their face. Many years later, Dr Michel and his students followed up with this group of children and found that the children who could wait not only did much better in school, but also did better in their social relationships and careers later on. This experiment illustrates the principle of delayed gratification; in other words, being able to exercise self-control and delay immediate gratification for something better in the future.

A lack of self-control plays a causal role in a myriad of personal and social problems. Looking at the South African landscape, it is easy to spot these problems in the high number of school drop-outs, teenage pregnancies, over-eating, substance abuse, violence and criminality.

Researchers are divided with regards to the origin of self-control. Some believe that it is genetically determined and that parents cannot contribute to its development. Other researchers found strong indications that the quality of parenting plays a significant role in the development of self-control. I firmly believe that parents can play a huge role in teaching their children self-control.

When children are young, they tend to be active, curious and impulsive. We cannot expect of them to control their impulses at all times, which is why parents need to guide and control them until they are old enough to do it themselves. Self-control will help children to say no to risk behaviours (instant gratification) such as smoking, dropping out of school, early sexual activity and substance abuse. The following can be done to teach children self-control:

  • Parents need to be good role models of self-control in all areas of their lives: financially, emotionally, in their lifestyle and behaviour. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and should find expression in Christian parents’ lives. If they are lacking in an area, they can pray and ask the Holy Spirit to assist them. Actions speak louder than words. If parents are frustrated and angry, they need to control their words and actions. They should also be good role models in handling delayed gratification, putting off immediate rewards in exchange for larger rewards, later on. This can start with wise financial management. They can share with their children that they are saving to buy something cash or that they cannot buy luxuries now, because the school fees need to be paid first. Self-control can be extended to all aspects of their lifestyle and habits.
  • Parenting style: Research shows that parents who are warm and loving, who communicate often with their children and who exercise strict discipline without beating their children (authoritative parenting), get the best results.
  • Parents can apply the principles of positive discipline as described in the teaching on positive discipline.
  • They can support their children in their emotional development, and teach and guide them to express their feelings in a healthy way.
  • Very important is to establish a set routine at home. Parents need to teach children that there are fixed times for getting up, going to bed, doing homework, playing, having meals and taking baths. They must agree on fixed times for screen time and not allow the radio or television to be on all day. Children need to learn to stick to the rules, such as homework before playtime, no sweets before supper and no dessert unless they finish their food. They can be encouraged to take responsibility for their own routine as soon as they are old enough, e.g. by teaching them how to use an alarm clock. However, parents need to remember that young children still need constant monitoring and reminders. The advantage of a fixed routine is that children get to know their own body rhythms – when they are tired and when they are hungry. Bedtime rituals should include a cuddle and a story. Mealtimes should be taken together around a table (if possible) and can also be accompanied by rituals such as saying grace and sharing stories of the day. Routines must be flexible enough that children can adapt when something unexpected happens.
  • Parents need to give children the opportunity for social development. Activities in small groups of two or more give them the opportunity to practice social skills such as sharing, taking turns and having empathy for others. Activities such as drama and imaginary play train them to focus on their roles, adapt to others and to take others’ interests into account.
  • Sports, dance and music also create the opportunity for children to learn to stick to rules and adapt to other people. A healthy body improves brain development.
  • Children can be taught to make controlled decisions, e.g.: Do you want your pocket money now, or do you want to save it for the holiday? Then parents need to keep them to their decision and not give in if they regret it afterwards.
  • Parents can give their children a future perspective, so that they know what to expect in the short and long term. When going to the shops, parents should make it clear beforehand if they do not plan on buying sweets or toys, and stick to it. They can also help children build a dream for when they grow up. It is easier for children to work hard and resist temptations if they know that they are working for something more worthwhile in the future.
  • Parents and children can play games and sports that require concentration and focus. If they fail, encourage them to persevere and not give up. This builds self-control and perseverance.

Life is so much easier if one can control one’s speech, emotions and behaviour. Give your children this advantage in life!

Dr Jeanne Brown
Social Worker