His mother yelled his name, William, as he raced past me. She was close on his heels. The child, probably around age 4 or 5, was holding a package of sausage under his right arm — I’m not making this up — and, given the smile on his face, it was clear that he was having a great time grocery shopping with mom. Mom, not so much. 

This Blog is about self-control in kids. Why it matters, how to build it, and why it is the first skill to teach.

Fruitiest Fruit

In the Bible’s list of the “Fruits of the Spirit” — a list of highly praised character qualities — self-control is mentioned last, as if done so for emphasis. Yet most kids — and many adults — struggle with this skill. Teachers point to behavioral problems in students as a common impediment to learning — and to their sanity — and numerous reports point to the long-term benefits of self-control. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

There’s Something About Mary

After I disembarked the plane, I caught a cab and headed to the coffee shop. I was running late.

I hadn’t seen Curtis or Mary for several years and was excited to reconnect. Walking in, I groaned to myself, “Ugh… they brought their kids!” I knew that our conversation would be constantly interrupted by screams of, “He hit me!” or “Mom, I’m hungry!”

But as I approached, I noticed that the kids were sitting quietly at a separate table. And with a nod from Mary, each got up and greeted me. Then, I watched in amazement as they returned to their table and sat back down.

For the next hour, the three adults talked, laughed, and caught up on our lives while the three kids, aged 5, 4, and 2, sat quietly reading (or, at least, paging through books) and drawing pictures.

I couldn’t stop wondering when the expected child explosion would come. But it never did.

The Skill that Matters Most

I am a contrarian about many things. Here’s one example: 

Reading isn’t the most important skill a child needs. Self-control is.

Matt Barnes

Self-control is the foundation of learning and no other skill bears as much long-term fruit.

Success in any endeavor will eventually require a person to choose to do the hard thing, the thing that they don’t want to do but for which they must if they want to become great. This is self-control.

Many families default to entertaining their children whenever self-control is needed. Just look around at any restaurant. Most kids — and many adults — are fixated on a screen with a video game or a social media feed. But screens are a poor alternative to self-control and they are almost certainly counterproductive. 

Life requires self-control. Sitting still at school and at church, waiting in the doctor’s office, and walking with mom in the grocery store all require a child to restrain themselves. But once a child gets used to being entertained by a screen, it will become increasingly difficult for them to control their mind and body without constant entertainment.

How to Build Self-Control

As I prepared to leave to catch my connecting flight, I turned my full attention to Mary. At the time, my son had just turned one. I HAD to know what VooDoo spell she put on her kids. What drugs or magic potion she concocted to get her kids to behave like this!

Searching for the right words I asked, “Your kids…they are so self-controlled! How?!” She nodded with a confident smile and said “How do you get better at anything?” Then, answering her own question, she said, “…through practice and engagement.” 

Next week we’ll discuss building self-control through “Engagement.” This week we’ll focus on the nuts and bolts of Self-Control Practice.

Practicing Self Control 

Research says that self-control is like any other skill and that regularly engaging in behaviors that require self-control will improve a child’s ability over time. Think of self-control like a muscle. While exercise may exhaust the muscle in the short-term, the “self-control muscle” will grow stronger over time as the exercise continues .

Not surprisingly, some kids learn it easier than others but, due to the importance of this skill, parents must do whatever is necessary to practice this skill often. Here’s how Mary taught me, and how I teach other parents to practice self-control.

How to Practice

In addition to ideas found in this article and classic games like “red light, green light” or “freeze dance”, Mary did something unusual. She did something called “Sit Time” every day. I have since taught this method to parents with kids as young as 18-months and as old as 16-years and it is the MOST IMPORTANT lesson I teach. Here’s how it works. 

A short Sit Time session with neighbors

STEP 2: Have your kids line up in chairs or on a couch facing the parent. Each should have a book that they might enjoy. Explain to them that you are going to set a timer and during that time, they are required to sit with their book. Do not require that they read the book or that they sit perfectly still. This will simply devolve into a battle so avoid that friction. But it is a requirement for them to be quiet. You may need to remind, gently, of these expectations. When you are first starting, or if your child is very young, it’s best to sit very close to the child and to model what you expect. Eventually this won’t be necessary but, initially, you should have a book in your hand and you will sit quietly too. 

STEP 3: Set your timer. Depending on the age of the child, you may start with as few as 15 or 20-seconds (for an 18-month old) and 5-10 minutes for an older child. The KEY POINT is that you start with a time that is relatively easy for your child to satisfy without significant difficulty. Until the timer rings, everyone is to remain silent and read if they so desire. 

STEP 4: Once the timer goes off, give lots of kind words to your kids and thank them for practicing Sit Time. Repeat Sit Time regularly and every time they are in an environment where sitting quietly is expected (church, doctor’s office, etc). This should be relatively painless and thought of as practice sessions.

STEP 5: As your kids begin to become more accepting of this process, begin to slowly increase the amount of time on the timer. You’re looking at long-term growth so take it slow. Over time, the child WILL begin paging through the book. Don’t force them, just trust this process. It works if the parent follows through. And, after a few months of following these steps, you’ll look like Angela and her family. (Son is 27-months and sits for 25-minutes “reading”. His little sister is 7- months and “reads” for 15-minutes.)

They are building the foundation for a crazy strong reader because crazy strong readers are able to control their minds and bodies long enough to consume the written word. 

Pro-Tip

Most parents who give up do so for two reasons: First, they try to increase the time too quickly. This leads to constant friction and eventually, frustration and abandonment. Take it ridiculously slowly. It took Angela months, but now she is able to take her kids anywhere without fear of mutiny. 

The second reason parents give up is because that they simply don’t realize the value of what’s happening in the minds of their tiny humans. Most families get in the habit of brushing teeth twice a day. Sit Time is FAR more important to the long-term health of their children. Their kids are learning self-control which means that, after they have mastered themselves, mastering reading — or anything else they choose to learn — will be a breeze… including grocery shopping.

Yes, Sit Time can happen ANYWHERE a child needs to sit down for a while.

Next week

Next week, we’ll discuss the other way that self-control is learned: through engagement of the mind. Stay tuned.

Help is Available 

As always, if you would like help with Sit-Time or just to discuss your child, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here or by calling us at 832-210-1200 ext: 1200 and leaving a message. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

Best of luck to you as you continue to improve in your ability to lead your child. Your kids are counting on you!

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