When you ask your child to wait patiently for something, do they struggle? Perhaps it’s waiting for you to finish  a phone call before asking you a question. Is it a monumental feat for you to keep your child on-task since they get easily distracted by video games or texts from friends? These are just a few examples of how self-control impacts our daily lives and that of our children. Self-control has long been lauded as a pillar of upright behavior and achievement. In today’s world where instant gratification seems the norm, is self-control still needed? Let’s take a deeper look at the concept of self-control and why we may not need to abandon it quite yet.

What is Self-control?

We all have some notion of what self-control means in our own lives. The idea pops into our heads when we consider taking that second piece of cake on our plates. It might come up when we delete that distracting social media app from our phone because we just can’t resist opening it. Self-control comes into play in many of our daily decisions. Among scholars, self-control has been defined as “the self-initiated regulation of thoughts, feelings, and actions when enduringly valued goals conflict with momentarily more gratifying goals.” This definition speaks to the many daily conflicts we and our children experience when it comes to self-control. We have goals that we are attempting to meet (e.g., finishing a work assignment, completing homework), but other momentarily gratifying activities or goals (e.g., checking social media, playing with friends) tend to intrude on our thoughts. The actions we take to keep ourselves “on track” towards larger, more meaningful goals are what compose our (or our children’s) self-control.

The Importance of Self-Control

From this definition, it’s easy to see why we might still value self-control in our children, even as the world emphasizes instant gratification. Self-control offers individuals the tools to help meet meaningful long-term goals. Without self-control, we all might just give in to the whims of each moment and fail to meet our potential. When considering our children’s futures and their potential, we see why self-control remains relevant. 

Beyond these apparent benefits of self-control, however, there are real, tangible gains as well. Not surprisingly, children with higher levels of self-control tend to perform better academically, including higher academic attainment, higher course grades, and better achievement test scores.

Additionally, the usefulness of self-control extends beyond the classroom. Long-term studies find that adolescents who exhibit greater self-control tend to have more positive life outcomes. For example, adolescents who show strong self-control grow up to be adults who have better quality relationships with others, particularly intimate relationships. Their relationships tend to be more satisfying and have less conflict. The benefits of self-control also extend to individuals’ career lives. In the same study, researchers showed that adults who showed greater self-control as adolescents were more likely to have satisfying careers. They tended to feel more efficacious in their jobs and pursue further career training and development

While perhaps not surprising, this collection of findings further reiterates the value of fostering self-control in our children. In our daily lives as parents, though, we know that children often struggle with self-control. Their immature brains have not yet developed the skills needed to resist temptations and stay on track toward goals. The great news is that we can help our children gain these self-control strategies that will aid their growth and development.

Ideas for Fostering Self-Control in Children

Fostering self-control in children requires time and patience on our part. With young brains and limited life experience, they simply do not have the same context for utilizing self-control as adults do. Day-by-day, however, through our interactions with them, we can guide our children in ways that will enhance their self-control.

Unstructured Play: When we think of play, we may consider it “frivolous” time wasted when children could be doing more important things. As a matter of fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Especially in early childhood, play is crucial not only as a conduit to learning and exploring, but also as a way of building social and emotional skills. “Unstructured” play, in which children are largely in charge of the activities, particularly reinforces self-control skills. In this context, children often need self-control skills to inhibit reactions with peers, plan, or follow rules created by their friend group.

Games: In addition to simple, unstructured play, there are a few organized children’s games that can help foster self-control. Games that require children to stop and think before acting can aid in the development of self-control. Classic children’s games such as Freeze Dance, Simon Says, or Red Light/Green Light are examples of activities that rely on self-control skills.

Spend Time Together: It may seem like an obvious parenting activity, but research shows that parents who engage with their children more tend to have stronger self-control. The study considered “engagement” to be activities like playing games, reading books, doing crafts, or going for walks together. This type of parent-child engagement on a consistent basis was linked to higher levels of self-control in children. Participating in activities together appears to  give an ideal setting  for parents to model self-control strategies for their children and for them to practice these skills.

Goal-Oriented Activities: As we have seen, self-control skills really come into play when we are working towards a goal. It makes sense, then, that goal-oriented activities turn out to be a great “training ground” for helping children improve their self-control. There are many goal-oriented activities that children might enjoy, such as board games, sports, academic competitions (e.g., Spelling Bee) or martial arts. Any activity in which the goal gets progressively harder as the event progresses can be a helpful format for enhancing self-control. Research indicates that martial arts are particularly helpful in fostering self-control. One study found that children who participated in martial arts showed stronger executive functioning skills, of which self-control is a key component. 

Whether it’s avoiding digital distractions in order to finish homework or leaving a party early to get to work on time, self-control plays a crucial role in our children’s lives now and will continue to throughout their adult lives. As parents, we can help set them up for success by focusing intentional effort on fostering their self-control skills. 

Preview Blurb: Do you find yourself constantly saying to your child, “Please wait,” or “Control yourself!” or maybe “Get back to your homework?” These struggles with self-control are common for many children. Usually, it’s simply because they are still young and their brains are not fully developed. However, self-control is a skill that can be enhanced with practice. Read on to learn easy ideas for boosting this most important skill in your children.

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