I’m continuing my Character Training series today on building self-control. Next week I will talk about why self-control is so important so stay tuned. For more posts on character (including gratefulness, compassion, doing what needs to be done, kindness and delayed gratification) go here.
My boss is an entrepreneur and career coach. She tells her perfectionist clients that 80% is almost always good enough. When people spend hours or days trying to create absolute perfection, they freeze up and freak out. She had to start saying that because some people actually believe – or their feelings do – that 100% exists.
Let’s get this out there right now. No one is going to be 100% anything at any time. Our children will not be 100% obedient or self-controlled. They won’t be 100% sweet or mean or anything else. I often get angry at myself if I’ve said something angrily or had a mean thought. I do this because somehow I still expect myself to be perfect. Or whatever my version of perfect is.
In Toddlerwise, Ezzo’s stats (p. 94) may even give us high-achieving personalities a lot of hope and less mental stress. According to Toddlerwise, the following percentage of compliance or self-control exhibited to your instructions should be expected and are quite normal developmentally.
I repeat, these percentages of obedience and compliance are considered normal.
– 2-year-old: complies with instructions 60% of the time
– 3-year-old: complies with instructions 70%
– 4-year-old: complies with instructions 85-90%
I think these are great odds! Now we can stop thinking of our children as capable of perfection and start shepherding their hearts. Here are some thoughts about self-control and how we can grow it in our children.
1. Give them more credit.
Our church has Sunday School for children 2.5 and over. That means babies and toddlers 2.5 and under stay with you or go to another room on campus to supervise playing. With each family having an average of 3 kids (seriously) there are simply too many kids to supervise, and considering breastfed babies stay with their moms anyway, that’s just how the system works.
I was telling my husband it got old going to church every week and hardly ever hearing a sermon and I realized… our youngest will sit happily in the stroller and probably sleep. We assumed our 2-year-old couldn’t handle being quiet for 30 minutes. But I remembered, he has done it on occasion and he’s very interested in books. Is it wrong, inhumane or insane of me to expect my toddler to hover quietly nears for half an hour? I don’t think so. Can I expect him to sit still in a chair without moving or uttering a word for 30 minutes? Of course not.
We can’t expect children to be perfectly self-controlled, but we need to give them more credit.
2. Aim for 100%, but don’t expect it.
This used to be very hard for me. I would get personally offended if my children disobeyed me, as though they were saying “mama, I don’t like you enough to be obedient.” I’m so thankful that attitude has changed. As adults who want to please God and follow the commandments for our own good, even being able to reason in that way, doesn’t mean we are perfect. It’s impossible.
However, knowing what we do, we should still train for 100%. In practice this means that out of 10x you tell your child to do something, they may do it 6. The other 4 times you should still direct them to comply with your instructions and act accordingly if they do not, but you don’t start thinking your child is anti-authoritarian. This means you give an instruction and expect they follow-through knowing that, if they do not, you are going to help it follow-through.
We can’t expect our children to be self-controlled 100% of the time, but we can help them aim high.
3. Don’t be a robot.
As a mother we often think we need to be on parent mode all the time. While this is true, it doesn’t mean we turn off person mode either. I used to just expect my children to do everything I said, forgetting that small temptations or distractions are very real to them. One way I’ve started to help my kids feel understood while still requiring self-control from them, is to include their feelings in my directive.
For example, if I want them to start packing up their toys because it’s time for bed, I might say something like this. “Okay kids, it’s almost time for bed so let’s start packing up. I know it’s no fun to put toys away, but we can play with them again tomorrow.” I kid you not, this obvious strategy almost always stops the tantrums and fit pitching that comes with unwelcome news. Not every single time, but the vast majority it does.
Helping our children feel understood will actually increase their levels of self-control.
4. Break into the moment.
I can often see a bad situation coming with my kids. A much coveted book is being read by one sibling, the other takes it and the victim’s face transforms into that look that says “If I catch you, I’m going to bite you and it’s going to hurt.” When they are facing extreme temptation, putting their self-control to the limit, one of the best things you can do is break into the moment.
If my son looks like he’s going to go after his sister I’ll call his name loudly. Often that will stop him in his tracks, cause him to look at me, and then he’s able to control himself. Other times I need them to be self-controlled and they are not, I will clap loudly. That startles them, they look to me, and their self-control gets recalibrated so they aren’t taken away by emotion.
We can help our children get off the emotional high that leads to bad behavior by breaking into the moment.
5. Practice when it isn’t necessary.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s how the saying goes and we all know it’s true. If we practice coping skills, responses and habits we wish to instil when our children are they aren’t being tempted, we’ll help these things to become second nature. Military personnel are trained with certain responses and techniques over and over and over again so when they need them most, they are instinct.
For small children this might mean practicing 1) sitting still with their hands in their laps, 2) taking deep breaths, or 3) standing with their hands on the car tires while in your driveway. Having a behavior to fall back on when they are about to lose it will help teach them to break into the moment themselves.
We can’t expect our children to intuitively be self-controlled, we must teach them how.
It can seem daunting to teach young children self-control, but it’s very doable. The earlier you start teaching your children the benefits to self-control the easier it will be as they get older. Stay tuned for Self-Control Part 2: Why self-control is important from childhood to adults.
So…poll time! I loved the poll last time and thank all 61 of you who participated :) Here’s another one for you.
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