The #1 Virtue to Teach Your Children: Self Control

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

The number-one, most important value to teach your children is self-control.  It is the mother of all virtues, because all other good character traits are founded on self-control.

Self-control, also known as self-discipline or will power, means doing the right thing whether you feel like it or not.  Whether it's holding your tongue when someone is rude or doing your chores when you'd rather be playing, 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.

  • Resist overspending.

  • Moderate internet surfing and gaming.

  • Stay drug, alcohol, and smoke free.

A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study showed that self discipline is twice as much a predictor of school success as is intelligence.  As a teacher, I know this is true – not only in school, but as an adult too.  Throughout my teaching career, I’ve seen incredibly gifted students who lacked self-control who frankly grew up to be very unsuccessful.  (They didn’t have the self-discipline to study or do what their employers told them to do.)  Yet I’ve had lots of students with average intelligence, who became very successful.  These students knew how to persevere when the assignment got tough and do what was expected.

Children (and adults) who lack self control have the following traits:

  • Self-centeredness

  • Laziness

  • Disrespect

  • Distraction

  • Inability to deal with frustration

  • Need for instant gratification

  • Sense of entitlement

  • Addictions

While self-control is one of the top virtues to have, parents today often do little in the way of developing it.  In fact, unknowingly, parents do things in direct opposition to the development of self-control.  Instead of teaching their children that they don't always get everything they want in life, these well-intentioned parents believe that it is their job to make sure their kids are always happy.  And in their quest to make their children happy, they see to it that their children get upset as little as possible.

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, get groceries, etc.  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.

One way to inhibit the development of self-control is to condition your children to always get their way.  For instance, take the child who wants to continue playing video games after his 30 minute time limit is up.  When the parent tells him to turn off the game, he whines and complains.  The parent, not wanting to upset their precious child, allows him to continue.  How is that developing self-control?  Or, how about the child who throws a tantrum because she can’t have a cookie?  When the parent gives in so she won’t upset her child, how does that teach that you don’t always get your way in life?

Somewhere in the past thirty years, parents have gotten it into their heads that they need to satisfy their children's every desire.  They think they are terrible parents 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.

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 just got to do stuff you don’t want to do.

You can also begin teaching self-control before your child is a year old.  When your child wants something and you tell him no, don't allow him to throw a frustration tantrum.  Say something like, "I told you no.  You may not cry and throw a fit.  If you cry, you'll have to go to your room."  This teaches him that no means no and he needs to learn to deal with not getting his way.  I am, of course, not talking about being cold-hearted and mean to your child.  I'm suggesting that when he doesn't get his way on an issue in which you have said no, you don't allow him to act out of control.

Some professionals would argue that you simply cannot control a toddler's temper, whining, or outbursts.  I know for a fact that you can.  Even before the age of two, I would not allow my children to whine and complain or cry for no good reason.  I simply said, "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."  No matter how whiny or irritable they were, it was amazing how they regained control before the count of three.  I didn't say, "Oh bless your little heart.  How can Momma make you happy?"  I basically made them gain control over themselves or there would be a consequence.

Twenty plus years ago when I was raising my boys, 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 ventilating 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 more angry, not less.

Self-control doesn't happen naturally.  It needs to be taught, and taught early.  You can do this by teaching your children that it is unacceptable to scream and throw fits or get mad and slam doors.  They need to control their anger and their frustrations.  And they need to learn early in life that you don't always get your way.

Learn how to get your children to clean their rooms and help around the house with Rubric Rules: A Cleaning System for Kids.A

“ Train up a child in the way he should go, 

and when he is old he will not depart from it."

Proverbs 22:6​

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