Me Want It (But Me Wait): Teaching Self-Control to Children

In the summer of 2013, Sesame Street released a fabulous video in which Cookie Monster is learning about self-control. Self-control is an important skill for children to master, as it will help them succeed at school and manage their behavior at home. Naturlly, young children have no self-control. Children with ADHD or similar issues may lack self-control up till a much older age./P>

There are many ways in which a parent can teach a child self-control. With babies, you need to begin by modeling. Remain calm yourself when your child is distressed. There may be various ways in which a baby is calmed. Some need lots of physical contact, while others need to be laid down for a bit. People vary in their opinion on self-soothing, ie. whether you need to attend to a baby when crying or ignore them. I think it depends on the baby.

Listening skills are a first requirement. Teach your child to come when you call them. Rigidly enforcing social skills like eye contact may not be appropriate for some children, like those with autism, but your child needs to learn to listen to their name and to attend to you.

When a young child cannot get what they want, cannot do what they want to do, or for another reason gets frustrated, they may tantrum. For a one-year-old, consequences don’t work, but distraction does. When your child is a little older, like from the age of two on, use brief time-outs as a consequence for tantrums. Like I’ve said before, make sure your child knows when the time-out is over. This means for a young child that you will need to call them back out of time-out. Again, this reinforces listening skills. For older children, you can ask that they come back when they’ve calmed, but this may not work for children who are still unable to understand their own emotions, like most children with autism. You can point out signs of them being calm again when you call them back out of time-out. This may help children learn about their own emotions and behaviors.

Besides giving consequences for impulsive behavior or tantrums, it’s also very important to reward self-control. If you’ve promised your child ice cream after dinner and they’ve behaved according to your reasonable expectations, give them the ice cream. That way a child learns that not only will impulsivity be punished, but also that patience and self-control are indeed going to get you farther along in life.

Motivation is not the same as self-control. If a child can focus fine on a computer game but not when tidying their room, that’s not a problem with self-control. It is more likely that they lack the motivation to tidy their room. It is however possible to change your attitude. Children will need help with this. For example, as a parent, you may turn tidying the child’s room into a game. You also need to model the right attitude. If you approach tasks like they’re nasty chores, much energy will go into motivating yourself to do the task. If you approach them with a positive attitude, you will find it’s much easier to stay motivated and thereby use your self-control skills. With children (and as adults!) who have a special interest, you can use the special interest as part of the nasty chore.

Of course, there are other skills required for completing tasks besides motivation. Your child will need to have the attention span to focus, the working memory to remember what they need to do, and the organizational skills to plan their task and get it actually finished. Until I did my research for this post, I thought this was the problem with me, but then I realized I can focus fine on this blog post, which requires reading and summarizing multiple sources. I’m now thinking that motivation may be an issue for me, and see above for solving that.

However, when someone truly has poor atttenion, working memory and/or organizational skills, these skills still can be trained at least in children. Computer-based games that reinforce memory or attention have some evidence of effecitveness behind them. Similarly, there are games that reinforce self-control directly. You know the game of stop and go, where a green light means go and a red light means stop? When the child is used to these rules, reverse them and your child will practice keeping their impulse to follow the original rules in check. I’m pretty sure there are computer-based variations to this game.

8 thoughts on “Me Want It (But Me Wait): Teaching Self-Control to Children

  1. It’s tough to teach your children to wait – especially with all that is available at the touch of a button. I struggle with it, but try to model it for my son.

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