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One More Cupcake?...Promoting Self-Control Through the Ages

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“I know I’m not allowed but no one will notice if I take one more cupcake,” reasons my nine-year-old son. Whether young or old or in-between, we are constantly exercising the skill of self-control. And though our ability to resist impulses can apply to small issues like resisting a sweet treat, self-control, a learned competence, is an essential ingredient for pursuing goals, performing well in school, and maintaining healthy relationships.

Walter Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test, Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success writes that self-control “is essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships.” That’s because instead of responding impulsively to others, we need to consider feelings and the impact our words and actions have upon them.

The ability to exert self-control begins early. Babies are not born programmed but possess the potential to develop and hone the skill. They begin learning how to regulate themselves through their interactions with and attachments to caregivers. Mom distracts her baby when she is upset with a loving cuddle and a story, and baby learns how to self-soothe through that modeling and guidance.

Children are learning to self-regulate in their first five years of life. For toddlers and preschoolers, they begin to desire independence. As they try out putting on shoes or serving themselves a snack, they require focus and impulse control to manage frustrations and setbacks to getting the job done. Self-regulation is one of the core executive function skills that enables children to plan, shift attention, and focus on multiple tasks. Researchers have concluded that the development of these skills is a more critical foundation for success in school than knowing letters or numbers (see Harvard’s Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System).

The benefits of building these skills last a lifetime. Children who are anxious and unable to cope move away from learning challenges, while kids who self-regulate can take on difficult problems and persist in solving them. As children grow and develop, their abilities to exert self-control will determine whether they can maintain friendships even when conflicts arise or achieve academic goals, such as performing well on high-stakes tests or getting accepted to a preferred college.

As parents, we desire children who are happy, responsible and hard working. Self-control will assist our children in achieving those hopes. There are numerous simple ways that we, as parents, can help children develop, practice, and hone the skill of self-control at various stages of their life.

Self-Control at Ages 3-6

One of children’s central tasks at this age is figuring out the rules of any environment - whether home, daycare, or (pre)school. Basic social assumptions, like how to use school tools or how to behave on a bathroom break, are high on the learning agenda. Children are able to internalize the rules when they first see them applied and enforced with others. Though we tend to perceive “tattle-telling” as a negative behavior, in fact, it’s a positive way children learn about and attempt to internalize the rules for themselves.

In order to control impulses, children have to learn to manage their emotions. In early childhood, children are beginning to develop an emotional vocabulary. But when upset, they might compound their frustration by feeling misunderstood. This can extend their melt downs and prevent them from moving on to an important task in school or at home.

Easy Practice on Rules:

Pretend playing about rules and routines is an enjoyable and simple way to practice self-control. Your child can teach her teddy bear the routine of getting ready for preschool in the morning step by step. “What do we do first?” you may ask, to prompt her thinking. If you notice your child being challenged by adhering to any specific rules, create a game that helps teach that rule and practice following through together on it.

Easy Practice on Identifying Emotions:

Find chances to use feeling words in your everyday life. Point out when your child is expressing an emotion and ask if you are understanding him correctly. “You seem angry. Is that right?” As you are reading picture books, ask what your child thinks the characters are feeling. Play the “feelings guessing game” at dinner. Take turns making faces to show emotion and see if each family member can guess what the other is trying to express. Practice matters when it comes to understanding others’ feelings! And children are better able to manage their emotions when they are able to name them.

Self-Control at Ages 7-9

School-age children are encountering a host of new academic challenges (like learning long division), developmental challenges (like learning to ride a bike) and social challenges (like responding to teasing by classmates). Any of these can produce anxiety and frustration. Children will have to develop patience with themselves as they attempt to master increasingly difficult tasks. You can help them practice in the midst of your daily family routines.

Easy Practice on Calming Down:

Practice deep breathing with your child in order to help her calm down. You can try it out while you are engaged in your bedtime routine. Try ocean breathing in which you make the sound of the ocean waves as you slowly and rhythmically breathe together in and out. This serves the critical biological function - when you or your child are upset - of moving your brain out of the fight-or-flight mode (when your survival instinct takes over) and back to the ability to use the logical and creative parts of your brain restored by your deep breathing. When your child throws his pencil down in frustration during homework time, you can encourage him to take a break and simply remind him of your ocean breathing practice.

Self-control at Ages 10-15

Because tweens and teens are deeply involved in understanding their self-identity, part of defining who they are and where their boundaries lie involves pushing the limits and rules set by parents or teachers. They are also taking more cues from their peers as they make decisions. Teens need healthy risk-taking outlets to channel their enthusiasm for exploration in ways that may thrill but not harm. And while pursuing healthy risks, parents can ask good questions to facilitate reflection on the logical consequences of an action.

Easy Practice on Consequential Thinking:

As we discussed in early childhood development of self-control, children learn the rules only after they see them applied and enforced with others. So too, with teenagers, who begin to internalize their own sense of cause and effect by considering the consequences of others’ choices. Whether it’s a story on the local news, a novel read for school, or a peers’ challenging situation, these all offer chances to ask questions and prompt thinking. You can even turn it into a game to pass time driving in the car or while having a family dinner. Play “What did they do? What would you do?” If you don’t know the whole story, predict what might happen as a result of another’s choice to take Mom’s laptop without permission, for example. If you do know the result, then ask: “What would you do instead? And what would result from that decision?” Playing out the consequences of actions can help a teen make the connections between their choices and the outcomes.

Particularly for ages 10-12, children have a keen new sense of social justice. You can build on this interest by posing ethical dilemmas and exploring possible responses. “What if you could cure cancer but you had to harm your Dad in the process of doing it?” Offer some highly challenging questions and help your daughter or son figure out where their moral boundaries lie.

Whether it is readiness for school or readiness for life beyond school, practice in self-control just may be the key differentiator for those who will achieve their highest goals. Why not offer simple opportunities in daily family life to practice this critical life skill?


Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test; Why self-control is the engine of success. NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function: Working Paper No. 11.

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