Self-Control at an Early Age

— Written By Shirley Rush and last updated by
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Self-control is a skill that children need to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.

Developing self-control begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. It is a skill that is critical to children’s school success and overall healthy development. It enables children to cooperate with others, to cope with frustration, and to resolve conflicts. Young children learn these skills through interactions with others and guidance from parents, guardians, teachers and other adults. Self-control also involves thinking skills, as we decide which of our impulses to act on.

Self-control is about being able to regulate yourself. Self-regulation is a child’s ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention. The growth of self-regulation is a cornerstone of early childhood development and is visible in all areas of behavior.

Early childhood environment is so vital in helping to shape self-control pathways in developing the brain. Children who experience early adversity are at risk for self-control problems.

Tell and show your child what he can do, not only what he’s not allowed to do. Young children learn a lot about how to act by watching their parents or guardians. The younger they are; the more cues they take from you. It is imperative that we be a good example at all times.

Toddlers are very sensitive to criticism. They want approval, and they may be little show-offs in order to get attention. Toddlers learn self-discipline by sticking to a routine. This helps toddlers know what to expect. A schedule helps toddlers build internal discipline and they learn self-control.

When children lose self-control, it’s often manifested with hitting, kicking, and screaming. Good ways to stretch that self-control muscle include some of the following:

  • Counting to ten before responding
  • Walking away
  • Putting their head down on a desk, if at school
  • Exercise
  • Talk with an adult

Self-control is more about a child’s inner life than about his or her outer conformance. We want the child’s heart to be engaged in the waiting process. Don’t give constant positive reinforcement for every compliance or good job of waiting. For example, a child should wait his or her turn because it’s the right thing to do, not because of the treat he or she will get. Otherwise, a child won’t be able to wait without the promise—and deliverance—of a reward. However, every once in a while, a small reward for exceptional waiting behavior is okay.

Teach children to respond with a good attitude as well as the correct behavior. This requires self-control and helps children learn to control their impulses. A good response to correction is sometimes difficult to learn but work in this area will help a child develop a skill which will help them forever.

Some parents try to give their children an easier life than they had or they try to make their children feel good at the expense of good character. Unfortunately, this often translates into more freedom and less self-control. Wise parents will use childhood to prepare a child or children for success as and adult.

For more information, contact Shirley Rush, 4-H Life Skills Coordinator, at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Hoke County Center, at 875-2162 or email sarush@ncsu.edu.