Updated: Jun 14
Self-control is the #1 most important virtue because you can’t have the other virtues until you first have self-control.
“Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.” Proverbs 29:11 (NLT)
Did you know there are over 40 virtues that we should instill into our children? (A virtue is a character trait that is considered morally excellent, such as kindness, unselfishness, and honesty.) While all of them are important, there’s one virtue that is the foundation of all the others. It’s self-control.
Self-control is the #1 most important virtue because you can’t have the other virtues until you first have self-control. For instance, you can’t always be kind, or respectful, or hard working unless you first have the self-control to exhibit that trait.
Self-control is the ability to control your impulses, emotions, or desires. In other words, self-control means doing the right thing whether you feel like it or not. Whether it's speaking respectfully when you’re really mad, or doing your chores when you don’t want to, self-control involves not getting your way and not getting upset about it.
Self-control is needed in every aspect of life. Children (and adults) need self-control to be able to:
Sit still and listen.
Control their temper and tongue.
Persevere to get their work done.
Respect others and their belongings.
Stay healthy, by way of diet and exercise.
Moderate internet surfing and gaming.
Stay drug, alcohol, and smoke free.
However, children (and adults) who lack self-control have the following traits:
Inability to deal with frustration
Need for instant gratification
Sense of entitlement
But self-control does not come naturally to children. It must be developed. And the way to develop it is with instruction, practice, and repetition. Starting in the pre-toddler years, our children need to repeatedly practice self-control until it becomes habit. Like any skill or talent, the more children practice self-control, the better they'll be at controlling themselves.
How Parents Inhibit the Develop of Self-Control
Unfortunately, many well-meaning parents do things in direct opposition to the development of self-control. Instead of teaching their children they don't always get their way, these well-intentioned parents believe it is their duty to make sure their kids don’t get upset.
Here’s the problem with that though: In real life, your children are not going to be allowed to get their way all the time. In real life, your children are going to have to do a lot of things they don’t want to do when they grow up, like go to work, clean the house, or pay the bills on time. Without the development of self-control, your children will not know how to deal with the frustration of not getting their way or having to do stuff they don’t want to do. This is going to make for very unhappy children…and adults.
For instance, if you tell your child to turn off his video game because his time limit is up, but he gets really upset and doesn’t want to, what should you do? Does it really matter if he plays another 30 minutes? It’s not worth making him upset … is it? But by allowing him to continue, how is that developing his self-control? How is that training him that when he doesn't get what he wants, he needs to accept it with a gracious attitude?
Or how about the child who throws a tantrum because he can’t have a cookie? When the Mom gives in so she won’t upset her child, how does that teach him he won’t always get his way?
Somewhere in the past thirty-plus years, parents have gotten it into their heads that they need to satisfy their children's every desire. They feel guilty if they make their children upset or have to wait for something. But giving in constantly just to avoid upsetting your children, teaches neither patience nor restraint.
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Harvard University professor, Daniel Goleman found that children, who learn how to delay gratification, develop self-control. However, children who were raised to receive immediate gratification as preschoolers grew up to be troubled adults. They were more prone to get easily frustrated and angry. And they still expected immediate gratification.
In comparison, children who could delay gratification as preschoolers were able to handle frustrations better and less apt to get upset as adults.
Twenty plus years ago when I was raising my sons, many parenting “experts” advised that parents should let their children vent their anger. I recall reading, “If you don’t allow your child to vent his anger, where will his anger go?” I remember thinking, “It will develop his self-control, that’s where it will go!”
Now I discover there’s evidence to back me up. Researchers have found that venting your anger to make you feel better is one of the worst strategies. In fact, outbursts of rage pump up the brain's arousal system, leaving you angrier, not less.
But really, they didn’t need a research study to show that venting your anger was a bad idea. The Bible says that “Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.” - Proverbs 29:11 (NLT)
Self-control is not an innate quality. It must be developed, and developed early. Here are some ways you can help your child develop self-control:
Be a good example. Do you yell and scream when you get mad? Do you lose your temper when you discipline your children? Be aware that your children are learning from you how to act and react in difficult situations.
Have a Training Session to train your children how to have self-control. Practice different scenarios about what they should and should not do. Practice: What would you do if you really wanted to do something and I said no? What would you do if you were mad and I sent you to your room? Train them how they should calmly react to frustrations and disappointments.
Never reward a temper tantrum. Whatever your children are having a tantrum about, make 100% sure they don’t get it! (Note: For young children, you can often prevent tantrums by making sure they have scheduled meals, snacks, and naps.)
Start developing self-control early. Even children as young as one should not be allowed to throw a frustration tantrum when they don’t get their way. Say something like, "You may not act like that. I'm going to count to three and if you are still crying, I'm going to take you to your room." And then follow through. This teaches that no means no, and they need to learn to deal with not getting their way. I am, of course, not talking about being cold-hearted and mean to your children. I'm suggesting that when they don't get their way on an issue in which you have said no, you don't allow them to act out of control. (Note: This does not apply to children who are crying because of a physical ailment, such as hunger, teething, earache, etc.)
Don’t allow your children to scream and throw fits or get mad and slam doors. Calmly, but firmly, tell them that those types of behaviors are unacceptable, no matter how mad they are. Inform them of the exact consequence they will receive if they act out of control, and then be sure to follow through.
Delay gratification. Don’t give your children everything they want just to avoid conflict. Learning to wait patiently for things develops self-control.
Give your children strategies to try when they get upset. Options might include calmly taking a deep breath, counting to 10, or going to another room to cool off.
Make your kids do chores. Chores are a great way to develop self-control. Whether it’s helping clean up the kitchen each night or cleaning the bathrooms each weekend, chores teach children that in life you’ve just got to do stuff you don’t want to do.
Don’t allow your children to react angrily and have a bad attitude when they get disciplined. Self-control means having a respectful attitude even if you’re upset.
Read aloud to your children. Forcing your children to sit still and listen helps develop their self-control, patience, and attentiveness.
Require your children to stay quietly in their beds once they’ve been tucked in. Having them stay in their beds even when they don’t want to, helps develop their self-control.
Don’t be afraid to make your kids do stuff they don’t want to do. They will definitely need that skill as an adult.
Let your children know they can indeed control their emotions and reactions. It’s a skill that can be learned.
To learn more about instilling virtues into your children, read Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
Want to make new friends and connect with other Christian parents? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!