5 Surprising Ways Children Learn Self-Control

Self-control is a skill that will serve our children well for a lifetime. In fact, the classic “Marshmallow Experiment” suggested that preschoolers who had enough self-control to delay gratification and wait for a bigger reward had higher SAT scores as late teens. They were also more likely to be described as positive, self-motivated, self-confident, and persistent at the end of high school. We all want that for our children, right?  So how can we teach our children self-control? There are many ways to teach our children self-control, but I want to share five somewhat surprising ways to promote self-control in our children.

  • Model self-control. I know that doesn’t sound so surprising. In fact, it’s rather obvious. It’s so obvious we probably need a little motivation to do it…AND that brings me to the surprising part of modeling self-control. A study that followed almost 1,000 people from the age of 3-years to 45-years found that children who exhibited a higher level of self-control walked faster, had younger looking faces, and had healthier bodies when they became adults! In other words, practicing self-control not only teaches our children a great life skill, it also helps us look and feel younger. Want to look and feel younger? Practice self-control and model it for our children.
  • Encourage your child to talk to themselves. One study found that saying the name of an object while looking for it made the person better able to find the object than simply thinking about it. (I have tested this one and it works for me.) Another study suggested that talking to oneself about a task increases that person’s ability to restrain impulses (AKA, practice self-control). Encouraging your child to talk to themselves as they engage in an activity can also help them restrain impulses and remain focused. This also means that yelling at our children may interfere with their self-control. Why? Because our yelling will compete with their own self talk. Our loud words will silence their self-talk and interfere with their self-control, leaving them open to more impulsive behaviors. Stop yelling at your children and encourage them to talk to themselves.
  • Give your children time to play with their father. According to a review of 78 studies, children who played with their fathers had more self-control as they matured. Fathers tend to engage in “rough and tumble play” which helped their children learn to better regulate their feelings and behaviors. Overall, children who played more with their fathers exhibited better emotional and behavioral regulations as well a lower risk of hyperactivity. Dads, teach your children self-control. Play with them.
  • Teach your child to practice gratitude every day.  Research suggest that daily gratitude increases self-control and reduces impulsive behaviors.
  • Keep your promises and prove yourself reliable. A study published in 2013 repeated the marshmallow study with a variation. In this study, the children either experienced an adult who followed through on his promise or one who did not. Then the children were presented with the opportunity to wait with one marshmallow to get a second one or simple eat the one marshmallow. Those who had previously experienced a reliable adult practiced more self-control. They were better able to wait for the second marshmallow. Keeping your promises to your children helps them learn and practice self-control.

Practicing these five surprising tips will help your children develop self-control. And that self-control will benefit them for a lifetime. Isn’t that a great gift to give your children?

One comment

  1. Jim Lueers says:

    Thanks John! These are truly interesting and looking back I remember all the fun times I played a hide and seek game called “Ruff, Ruff” dog with my girls. They would come looking for me and squeal away as I came bursting out when they found me with a dog toy and barking loudly. A bit of “ruff” and tumble and surprise created great memories and was fun for all. Good to know that playing with dad was helpful and not scarring 🙂

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