Doing the Right Thing
May 10, 2004
John Hoffman

"Forget about self-esteem. Think about self-control. It has much more yield in terms of predicting productive human behaviour." With that statement, made on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, American psychologist Roy Baumeister dismissed one of the fundamental tenets of modern parenting. For years we’ve been told — and most of us believed — that nurturing our kids’ self-esteem is one of our biggest jobs. And here was the co-author of a major analysis of self-esteem research saying it isn’t very important — much less critical than something he calls self-control.

It’s not just Baumeister who is talking about self-control. Other psychologists say it’s directly linked to children’s moral development. Not only do kids need to know right from wrong, they need to be able to make themselves do the right thing.

Why then, in parenting circles, is self-control seldom talked about, at least not head-on? Sure, experts often opine that children are “out of control” these days — which implies that more parental control is needed. On the other hand, some childhood behaviour problems are blamed on parents who are over-controlling. Does any of this relate to the kind of self-control the psychologists are talking about?

It’s time we took a close look at this crucial human attribute, so neglected in the discussion of how to raise children.

What do psychologists mean by self-control?
Self-control means being able to do the right thing most of the time — in psycho-lingo, the ability to adapt your behaviour and emotional reactions to various situations, according to Claire Kopp, a leading researcher in the area. “It’s a child’s developing ability to make decisions about how to behave in such a way that he gets what he wants or needs without always getting into conflict with or hurting other people or causing lots of problems,” says the developmental psychologist at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles. Obviously, we are human beings, so even well-developed self-control will always be less than perfect. However, people with good self-control can usually judge:

• when to delay gratification and curb impulses, and when to act;
• how to keep their emotional reactions from overwhelming them;
• how to get emotional support from others;
• when to comply, that is, go along with what others expect or what laws or social customs require.

Why does self control matter?
“It helps you get along in the world,” Kopp begins. Good self- control enables kids to make friends, stay out of trouble and get what they need. It also helps them cope when they don’t get what they want. Adults with poor self-control tend to have problems with relationships, jobs, finances and the law.

How can parents help?
We’re helping our kids develop self-control all the time, through the ways we care for, interact with and teach them. It begins at birth in the most literal way: Research has shown that close physical contact actually helps infants regulate some of their bodily systems, including heartbeat, breathing and body temperature.

As they crawl and then walk, we begin to help kids learn what Kopp calls everyday rules. “Protection is the first socialization goal,” she says, as we tell toddlers to stay away from the stove and not eat the sand in the sandbox. The other goals in Kopp’s “big three” are protection of property and being nice to others. Other everyday rules include self-care (dressing yourself, brushing your teeth), manners, mealtime and other routines (putting away toys) and being able to wait. In other words, says Kopp, “most of this is just good, common-sense parenting that you’re probably already doing.”

Isn’t this really just discipline then?
Partly. But teaching self-control goes beyond just correcting misbehaviour, Kopp explains. “It’s very important to talk about the whys of behaviour — why some actions are not safe, why hitting hurts people.” It also means helping children develop various abilities, including good language skills.

Nuala Reilly’s daughter Kathryn, three, is friendly and outgoing. Unfortunately, those positive traits are not balanced by a good sense of personal boundaries. “She’ll get right up on a stranger’s lap, put her arms around his neck and start telling him a story,” says the mother of five from Cambridge, Ont. Reilly and her husband have talked to Kathryn about the difference between strangers and “people that we know” — and also why most people don’t want you to climb on them. Reilly also realizes that, important as they are, such explanations are not a quick fix. Especially with a child as young as Kathryn, understanding can come slowly. “We’ll keep explaining,” says Reilly. “But we also know we’re going to have to watch her pretty closely too, and stop her sometimes.”

Where do parents stumble in disciplining and how does it affect self-control?
The stumbles tend to come at either end of the spectrum. When parents are too punitive, children come to rely on someone telling them what to do, instead of learning to make their own judgments. On the other extreme are parents who set too few limits. Kids can’t learn everyday rules if no one shows them. They know that grabbing the toy car from the boy next to you gets you what you want; what they need to be taught is that it’s not acceptable behaviour.

What helps, apart from positive discipline and love, is flexibility. “Effective parents…must constantly adapt, to who the child is and to the child’s constantly changing development,” says Kopp. That means tailoring your parenting approach to your child’s personality (see more about temperament below) and adjusting rules and limits as your child gets older; for example, modifying bedtime from “lights out at 9 p.m.” to “in your room and quiet at 9 p.m.”

What's the difference between compliance and self-control?
Complying with everyday rules and parental requests is an important early step. But self-control is more. “When a child is complying, he is following the rule because of controls that come from outside him,” Kopp explains. “Eventually, though, children need to be able to get beyond compliance so they can follow rules without someone standing over them.”

What happens inside a child’s head that allows her to shift from external to internal control?
It’s an interaction between the parent’s guidance and the child’s growing ability to understand the world around her. In order to move from external to internal control, Kopp says, a child has to be able to keep a lid on her emotions when she needs to, consciously control her attention, plan her actions and solve problems. These nascent abilities begin to emerge as early as 12 months, but take years to fully blossom. At around 18 months a sense of personal identity, or self, begins to emerge; recognizing yourself as an independent being is the first step in assessing your own behaviour and whether it’s right or wrong. Towards the end of the second year, toddlers develop an understanding of future and past, which extends to thinking about consequences — if I take this cookie now, what will happen when mommy finds out? Around four, kids become aware of what other people know and might be thinking, and how their own actions affect others.

As their cognitive abilities progress, children are better able to remember rules and generalize them — just as you can’t grab things from your sister, you have to share at school too. They also develop the ability to read people and situations — “I can tell by that lady’s face that she doesn’t like the noise I’m making. I’d better be quiet.”

What’s the relationship between controlling behaviour and controlling emotions?
The ability to modulate emotions, as Kopp puts it, is an important part of self-control: A child might understand what behaviour is expected, but “if he’s flying off the handle all the time, he won’t be able to follow through and do the right thing.”

How do parents help kids develop emotional control?
First, just to be clear, we’re talking about regulating emotions rather than having complete control over them, says Jenny Jenkins, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto. “Emotion is part of human life,” she says. “You just want to help the child learn to modulate his response so he can function socially.” Right. The child who flips out every time something doesn’t go his way won’t get invited to many playdates.

One of the key factors is responsive parenting, says Jenkins. “There’s a huge amount of data that show that toddlers are better at regulating their emotions when their parents have been sensitive and responsive.” What does that mean? A baby cries because he’s wet, hungry or in pain, and has no way of knowing that feeling will ever go away. When mom or dad responds — offering comfort, food, a fresh diaper — he’ll gradually learn that bad feelings don’t last forever, and that we can get emotional support from others, Jenkins says. That’s why modern experts stress the importance of comforting babies.

What can hold a child back from learning to handle his emotions? Delayed verbal skill is one factor; late talkers tend to have more problems modulating their emotions. The other big factor is temperament. Some children are by nature more emotionally reactive than others, and take longer to get a grip on their feelings.

Liz Hicks has operated a preschool in Dartmouth, NS, for 21 years and has met a number of reactive kids, including one boy (let’s call him Aaron) who was in her program last year. “Aaron could lose it very quickly,” she says. “If someone knocked over his building or didn’t want to sit next to him at circle time, he’d lose his temper and lash out.” Hicks and her staff spent extra time with Aaron, trying to head off outbursts by coaching him on ways to ask for what he wanted rather than biting or hitting.

Where does temperament fit in?
“Learning self-control is partly about the child learning to fit in with the family and the parents’ expectations,” Jenkins says. “But it’s also about the family fitting in with the child. A lot of that has to do with the parents adapting to the child’s temperament.” In general, kids who are outgoing, less fearful and more inclined to explore are likely to have a harder time with self-control.

April Pierrepont’s four-year-old daughter, Keara, often plays with a little boy of the same age. “Aiden is much more relaxed and not nearly as on-the-go as Keara,” says the mother from Swan River, Man. “He’s quite content to sit and play quietly with a car.” Keara, on the other hand, would be all over the toy. “She’d want to take it apart, pull the wheels off and see how they work,” Pierrepoint says. Aiden’s more relaxed temperament extends to his compliance. He is more likely to go with the flow, including what his mom asks of him. “He doesn’t question to the same degree as Keara,” says Pierrepont.

Keara and her more temperamentally challenging peers will likely take longer to develop self-control, and will need more boundaries and structure, says Kopp. “Kids who are excitable and reactive may need more physical activity. Others might need more limits on the kind of movies or TV they see. Certain children may behave better at their birthday party if fewer children are invited.”

A cautionary note: While such kids need boundaries and structure, they may not respond well if the structure is completely rigid.

Is there such a thing as too much self-control?
Certainly, says Kopp. “Too much self-control can make people inhibited, fearful and unable to face challenges.” How do we help our children avoid this? Entire books have been written on the topic (good ones include Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It and Who’s in Charge Anyway? by Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn). The answer boils down to striking a balance: Children need limits, but they also need lots of practice in making decisions about their behaviour, seeing the impact of those decisions and learning from both their successes and mistakes.

How do parents know if they’re doing it right?
It’s hard to tell because, like so many other aspects of human development, self-control develops gradually. And backward steps may be frequent — especially, Kopp points out, after changes such as a move, a new school or a divorce.

One clue, though not a foolproof litmus test, is the difference between a child’s behaviour at home and elsewhere. Assuming all is well in the relationship between parents and child, if he tends to behave worse at home, it can actually be a sign of self-control. The child can see that he has to be more careful around other people, whose responses he is less sure of; around his parents, he knows he can let his hair down a little.

In general, we’re looking for gradual forward progress, as opposed to watching for the day when self-control all falls into place perfectly. “I read a recently published biography of Benjamin Franklin,” says Kopp. “He was a truly remarkable man who did many amazing things. But he also made some poor decisions that hurt others.” The point is not to make our kids so perfect that they’ll never do anything wrong. But if we help them acquire the tools, we can be confident they’ll do the right thing most of the time, particularly when they really need to.