Teaching Kids Self-Control

Teaching Kids Self-Control

I define self-control as the ability to select an appropriate response to a feeling or thought from among a number of possibilities.

If you accept the assumptions (and conclusions) of the Volcano Theory, and if you accept that control over another’s behavior is a delusion (a belief falsely held), then how are you to “manage” or “govern” your child’s behavior? How are you to “get” him or “make” him do the right thing, or do what you want him to do, or behave the way you “need” him to behave?

The answer to these questions is really quite simple. You can’t. So the best thing to do is to stop trying to do the impossible.

What?!? Stop trying to make your child do the right thing?

Then what about the child who never picks up her toys? What about the toddler running blindly into the street? Or hitting her mother? Or biting her brother? What about all her unacceptable behavior at school, or in the neighborhood, or in your home? What about your teenager stealing, or fighting, or cheating, or cursing?

Again, you’ll stop trying to make her do the right thing. You might think I’m crazy. So, what am I talking about??

Self-restraint is  the appropriate parental control

Let’s consider the toddler running into street or hitting her mother. In these cases, where safety or violence is a real issue, you’ll do whatever you can to make her stop. Yes! That’s the right thing, the preferable thing for you to do. You’ll grab her, hold her, pick her up and carry her, and in this way stop her from doing the dangerous or violent thing (as long as she’s not too big). Likewise, you may want to carry your toddler out of the restaurant or the store if she is making a real scene and disturbing you or others too much with her misbehavior or tantrum.

In these situation you really are (appropriately) taking control of the child’s unacceptable behavior by shutting it down. No argument there! You are in certain sense shutting down unacceptable behavior in much the same that a person is shut down being put in a straight jacket, or locked up in a prison cell. In cases where safety and/or violence is the issue at hand, you are physically, and appropriately, going to physically restrain your child (it she’s not too big).

Beyond child restraint

But these forms of physical restraint don’t–and can’t–take the next step and make the unruly child do what you are convinced s/he should do, or do what you want or need them to do, or do the right thing. This simple truth is that the young persons, just like we adults do, will do what they decide to do, what they want to do, even it’s dangerous (running into the street) or violent (hitting or biting), or just plain wrong (cheating, lying, stealing, etc.). And the vast majority of the time you can’t stop them or restrain them from doing it.

The only way they’ll do the right things, the things you want them to do, is if they themselves want to do them. That’s because it’s their thoughts and their feelings that shape, determine, and motivate their behavior at all times–not your thoughts and your feelings. That’s why I always say that the best you can get from your child, and what you really want, is their cooperation, where they want to do what you want them to do.

Most of what I write about and teach is concerned with helping parents 1) understand that they can only invite their children to do the right thing and 2) learn some good techniques (skills) to help them do that inviting more effectively than the Old School power and control tactics do. But here I am concerned with the challenge that parents face in helping their children to learn and practice better self-control. I want to help you, the parent, get some insights into how you can use your influence (not control) over your child to teach them the importance of controlling their behavior in socially appropriate ways–that is, cooperative and caring ways. To be successful in relationships and happy in life, children really do need to learn self-control, and learn that it is a big deal–and that it’s rewarding to boot.

Teaching self-control

So how does a parent use his/her influence to teach a child self-control? Specifically, how do you help your young child learn that self-control is necessary, possible, and rewarding? I’m going to propose a number of tactics you can use.

1. Model it.

Above all, you need to model self-control. There’s no question that children learn and value what their parents do even more than what their parents say. If your behaviors in any way conflict with what you say, your child will not only learn to practice what you do, but will also learn that what you say is hogwash–blah, blah, blah–and that you needn’t be taken seriously. “If he doesn’t practice what he preaches, he doesn’t believe it himself, so why should I?” On the other hand, if the child sees you consistently doing what you say they should do, they will not only learn to do it but they will be motivated to do it as well. Actions speak louder than words.

For example, what do you think will happen if you yell at your child, “Stop talking to me in that tone of voice!” or “Stop yelling at me, I’m your mother!”? Or what will the child think if you preach honesty and fairness, but your child sees that you are cheating somebody in some way? What will your child learn (and do) if you constantly remind him in forceful language that hitting is not okay, but then you spank him for some bad behavior? Or if your anger spews forth in loud, argumentative, or critical language? The obvious lesson for the child in these cases is: This is how she does it, and that’s how he is going to learn to do it too. That’s the kind of self-control he’ll learn.

“Time out” presents a great example of this. I always recommend that parents stop giving their children “time outs,” and instead take a time out themselves whenever they are getting angry at their kid. By saying something like, “I need a time out. I’m getting angry, and I don’t want to yell at you. I’ll be right back,” and then walking out of the room, the parent models a great way to handle the feeling of anger. If you do this regularly instead of getting into yelling matches or arguments with your child, s/he will learn to do it too. And soon you’re likely to see your child imitating you, and taking their own time outs as a way to cool down. When you do this, be sure to come back to the child as you promised when you cool down, and finish having the dialogue you were having before you got mad.

2. Talk about it.

Next, you need to talk a lot about self-control with the younger children. It’s a good idea to let them know that you value self-control in them because you cannot control them, and no one can control therm, except themself. This will require that you explain what “self-control” means–that it means a person controls himself, that is his own behavior. You can demonstrate this by shaking your hands in front of you and asking your child to do it too. Even if he refuses to do it (like one seven-year-old did with me in a recent coaching session I had with him and his mother), you can point out that he is the only one who can make his hands do anything. The same is true for his feet, and his mouth: he is the only one who can control his body, or his behavior. You might be wise to also let him know that since that is true, you don’t even want to try to control his behavior, and you are going to stop giving him orders, yelling at him, or otherwise try to “make” him do things. We’ll look at alternatives you can use in a minute, but here I want to stress that your talk about your child’s self-control needs to be supported by your commitment to doing something different, and your willingness to stop using Old School power and control tactics.

3. Illustrate it.

You need to illustrate self-control by giving examples connected to your talk. In other words, when you are in a tough or challenging situation in the presence of your child, tell her that you are now going to use self-control to keep yourself from doing something impulsive that you would regret. If your child wouldn’t understand those big words, you could say something like, “I’m trying real hard right now to use self-control. I’m trying to control my body so I don’t start yelling at you (or somebody else), or hit (or spank) you, or hit the table (or whatever).” You might say, “I’m going to use my self-control by using my words instead of my hands right now.” I’m sure you get the idea. Make the connection verbally for the child with the words “self-control,” so your child can easily see what self-control looks like in action, and can see you doing it. You’re not only bringing the words, the idea, into her consciousness, but at the same time you’re also illustrating what it means. This is powerful teaching. This is discipline, which means teaching and learning. You’re teaching a highly important relationship skill, and your child is learning to use it by watching you.

4. Disavow any desire to control your child.

As I mentioned earlier, you should publicly disavow all attempts at control of your child’s behavior, and admit your inability (and even your desire) to control him. This may be challenging for you, especially if you are a “control freak.” This is a great example of your own battle with your own ego, your “little self” that wants the whole world to do things your way so you can be happy, or right, or better than, or competent, powerful, or successful. By telling your child you do not want to even try to control him, you’re going public with that commitment, and putting yourself (your ego) on the spot. Then you’ve got to do something else. I recommend three things: listening, requests, and I-messages.

5. Listen.

First, you can use my number one rule of thumb: listen first, talk second. That is, you can invite the child to come up with some ideas about what she thinks would be the best thing to do at that moment. This can be what she thinks it is best for her to do, or for you to do. You’re inviting her to brainstorm ideas of best behavior, and use her “power refinery” (brain) and her words (mouth) to express possible options which can then be assessed with her in terms of consequences to arrive at a good choice of behaviors. You are inviting her ideas, listening to them seriously, and working with her to come to an agreement. When you invite her to tell you what she thinks you should do, you are not giving away your power, free will, or authority. Just because you ask for her ideas about this doesn’t mean you have to do what she suggests. You can always admit that, “Yes, that’s one option,” but encourage her come up with more. And finally, you can come up with your own ideas, too. “Would you like to hear some of my ideas?” is a good way to start the “talk second” part of this rule of thumb.

6. Use requests.

Anytime I hear a parent tell a child to do something (outside of danger situations), I think, “What, is she your little slave?” “Go get my coffee.” “Pick up your toys.” “Stop talking to me like that.” “Be home by supper.” I think it is profoundly disrespectful to tell kids to do things. It’s like we don’t need to tread lightly around their feelings because they’re “only kids.” Or because “I’m the parent.” I say, So what? They’re people too. Maybe I’m just too sensitive, but I don’t like to be told what to do. I’m more than willing to do things for people, but I much prefer them to ask me to do something rather than tell me to do it. “You’re not the boss of me!” is one way I’ve heard a young (and courageous) child resist his parent who was barking orders at him. And it’s true! He himself is the “boss of him” (that is, of his behavior)! Let’s admit it, and let’s put our ego in its place. We’re not “the boss of him,” and he’s not our slave. “Would you please do X?” or “Would you mind doing Y?” These are simple courtesies we would use with any friend, or any other adult for that matter. So why would we not get into the habit of using them with our children? Oh, and by the way! Don’t forget the corresponding use of “Thanks,” or “Thank you.” It always goes will with “please.” Remember my house analogy referring to the parent-child (or any other) relationship? It’s respect, not love, that is the “sticking stuff” that holds the relationship together.

7. Use I-messages

Along with requests, you can stop giving orders (a power and control tactic) by making use of “I-messages.” This is where I tell you what I would like, and why. It’s much softer, and more respectful, and gentler (some would say “weaker”) than a command. “I would really appreciate it if you’d pick up your toys before going to bed, honey.” “I’d like you to not use those bad words when talking to me.” “I’d really like you to eat your vegetables.” “I want you to cooperate with me on this, okay?” “I value your cooperation much more than your obedience, honey, so I’m not going to boss you around. Instead I’m going to make requests.” These are all examples of what I would like. True, they can be easily rejected or blown off by the child. But there is hardly a more powerful and respectful way to exercise self-control than to resist the urge to be your child’s “boss,” “drill sargent,” “dictator,” or “slave driver.” And believe me, your child will notice and appreciate, even if she doesn’t say anything. Not only that, it won’t be long before the favor of your respectful self-control is being given back to you. And it really feels good.


Self-control is a big deal in all relationships. If we as parents can’t exercise it consistently with everyone, including our kids, how can we expect them to learn it? By talking about it a lot, and letting our kids know we place a higher value on it than on us trying to control them, we’ll show them what it means and how it’s done. When we see them exercising it we’ll know we are doing it well ourselves!

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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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