Teaching Your Children Self-Control

Sometimes I write about areas in which God has given me wisdom and success… other times I write about topics that can cause me frustration and bring me to my knees. Today’s topic is the latter. I have three boys. Three young boys. Three exuberant, energetic, full-of-personality boys. They are wonderful. Yet, often this excitement for life results in a lack of self-control. I don’t want to excuse it as “boys will be boys.”

(Please know I am not saying self-control is only a male issue. Lord knows I haven’t mastered it either! I am just writing about the ways I experience this deficit and how I am targeting growth.)

 I want to steward their hearts, making sure they are being prepared to sacrifice their desires for the glory of their Savior. 

I recently wrote a post about the importance of Character Training as explained by Betsy in the Entrusted study. Self-control is just one area we are targeting, but it is an important one in my house!

One reason I am writing this post now is because Christmas is right around the corner. Echoes of “I want that! I want that too! And that!” can be heard from many a child as they thumb through a toy catalog or pass by a toy aisle. Blessing our children with great presents can be a wonderful picture of the wise men’s gifts for the newborn King, but we do need to be intentional about communicating that. We also need to make sure our children don’t get everything they want. It is important for children to learn to delay gratification and deal with disappointment. No parent wants that to come on Christmas morning, but those lessons do need to come. I think we can prepare our children for self-control and sacrifice before Christmas morning arrives.

I keep an online wish list for each of my children. When we go to a store and they really want something, I offer to place the item on the list when we get home if they remind me. Often they forget; if they remember, we add it together. If we have a few minutes we review the other items on the list to see if we can delete anything. Most times I remind them, “You won’t be getting everything on this list. If you could only pick three things, what would you choose?” It’s interesting to watch to see how the desires change over the course of several months. It affects my willingness to spend money on certain toys. Lincoln wanted a $40 costume for quite awhile. When his birthday arrived, I had no problem choosing that as one of his gifts because he had consistently prioritized it. Other items drop to the bottom as the passing fads that they are. I was incredibly impressed that my almost-four-year-old was able to choose three things from his wish list for his birthday. He acknowledged that he couldn’t get everything, and was happy with what he would receive. We did have to revisit the lesson briefly after he opened his birthday gifts, but it was a quick reminder instead of a drawn-out discussion. I can see the boys are learning to delay their desires. This is one small way I try to teach self-control. Here are a few more:

  1. Tell your kids “No” sometimes! Don’t give them a snack every time they ask. If dinner is in a half hour, they should learn to wait. (Of course there are exceptions to the rule.) Don’t buy them a toy every time you go to the store. Don’t say yes to every request. You get the idea. You’re not being mean, you are preparing them for the real world. When you make a grocery list, have your child make one too. Ask them to write down one special treat they’d like. When they get to the store, they need to stick to that item. You don’t have to do this each time, but it is a good exercise for avoiding impulsivity.
  2. Make self-control towers! This one is Lincoln and Ryder’s favorite! I take large, cardboard building blocks and build a tower around their heads. They lay there, wide-eyed and grinning ear to ear. If they move in the slightest bit, their tower will collapse, and they will know they weren’t self-controlled. We giggle a lot with this one, and it is a great opportunity for them to learn to still their busy bodies!

3. Have your child make eye contact or sit still for a given amount of time. Be careful with this one! Too long could be cruel! Your child’s age, personality, and experiences will dictate the time for this one. Start with ten seconds and see if they can hold your gaze without looking away. It is an important life skill! If they are successful, try longer. Next have them sit still (explain the guidelines for that before you begin) for ten seconds. It is amazing how challenging these quick exercises can be. They are good practice for adults too—especially in this fast-paced society!

4. Try a “Kid Fast.” I’m calling it a kid fast because I am not telling you to ask your child to refrain from food. Instead, have them give up screen time for a day, or perhaps only eat things God made for a day. Do this along with them! Talk about the moments that are hard, and pray to ask God for strength with them.

5. Give your child more exercise. Last year, my mother-in-law bought a mini bouncy house for Ryder for his birthday. I bought soft helmets for the boys, and they have a wonderful time jumping around! In this climate, it was a fantastic investment! During the spring and summer, I found great success with taking a mid-morning walk with the boys. We’d do some learning time, take a walk, come back for lunch, and they have quiet times. They were much more prepared to rest because their little legs had worked hard!

6. Give clear directions. Ask yourself if your child really knows appropriate behavior for the given situation. Do they need instruction or discipline?  Remember, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  (For further teaching on application of this verse, see Entrusted with a Child's Heart Chapter 9: Committed to Discipline (pages 280-285)  “Sit still” can mean many things. Clearly define your definition so your child can be successful. Make sure it is age appropriate. Take time to model the situation

7. Consider having your child do age-appropriate exercises for behaviors that are not discipline issues. Travis and I noticed Lincoln was interrupting us quite a bit. We retrained him on our “policy” for that. When he continued to interrupt, we instituted an exercise "consequence." Each time he interrupts, he has to do a few push-ups (and then he has to wait to tell us his point). It was very effective and helped him get more exercise!

8. Teach them a verse to memorize. Explain that a fruit of the Spirit is self-control and that God wants to give them success! Review it frequently, and try to fill them with hope! Don’t condemn them for their failures, but help them press on in hope.

9. Pray with them. Lincoln recently had to take a horrible-tasting medicine for four days. He got himself so worked up each time. It was one of those parenting moments that made you want to call in a sub! I realized I needed to pray with him before we started the process. The first time I prayed, I did it after he was already upset. Through tears he yelled, “It still tastes terrible!” We talked about being patient, and doing our part. The next time, I prayed beforehand, and it was much better. Lincoln knew that God answers prayer and God did give him the courage he needed! 

I’m sure there are many more ways to train your children in self-control; this is just a start. For more in-depth teaching on training children, see the following chapters in Entrusted with a Child's Heart:

Chapter 7: Establishing Authority: The Fear of God
Chapter 8: Managing a Child
Chapter 9: Committed to Discipline
Chapter 14: Character Building

Blessings as you train those precious children!

Posted on November 25, 2015 and filed under Building Your Family.