When is the right time to begin teaching your child self-control?

My pastor shared an old Chinese proverb the other day.
The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.
That clever saying has lots of applications. In parenting it is a reminder to start today in training up your child. But what about self-control? By definition self-control means to be in control of one’s self. When they are born children aren’t in control of anything. So is it possible to teach self-control to a child that has NO control? And if not, then what is the age when you can begin teaching them to be self-governing. And we would tell you the answer is today! But how do you teach a young child, even an infant, self-control? Well you can’t… but you can begin the process.
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Watch Kelli when she is diapering an infant and the baby begins to fuss. You will hear her say things like, “Alright now, let’s relax and calm down. Get control of yourself. I’ve got this. You’re going to be ok.” Now some would say, you’re just talking to yourself. To which I would argue, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be a waste. You see, before you can teach your child self-control, you have to recognize the need and importance of doing so. By uttering those words, you are reminding yourself of the value in teaching your child self-control (we consider it one of the 3 Most Important Things to Teach Your Child). I would also tell you, whether it’s the words, or the tone of voice, or the short prayer Kelli would pray over our child, I’d argue you’ve begun the process of teaching them self-control.
The other day my not quite two year old granddaughter was getting frustrated about something. I watched her mom (my daughter) simply say to her, “Take a deep breath.” Immediately that little girl took a deep breath and instantly was calmer. You should try it sometime… it works for adults too! But my granddaughter at 21 months of age was learning self-control. It is still early in the process. There will be many more lessons and lots of conversation around the character quality of self-control. But why wait until they are twenty, only to wish you would have started years before. It’s a process, to be sure, but it’s a process better started sooner rather than later.
The bible speaks a lot about the importance of self-control. In my experience self-control is the character quality on which all the other biblical qualities hang on! We can teach our kids about honesty, integrity, kindness, serving and the list goes on. They may agree with these qualities. They may even be trying to live out these values. But it’s self-control that gives our children the ability to live out the other character qualities. So when is the right time to begin teaching your child self-control? Twenty years ago. Unless of course your child is in your home today, then the answer is today.

4 thoughts on “When is the right time to begin teaching your child self-control?

  1. I absolutely believe in this! Tried and true with my first born, and I’ve witnessed it over and over with yours! But what to do with that sensitive, tired, strong personality of a toddler when she is past the point of reasoning? It sure doesn’t feel like the message is getting through to her!

  2. Arielle, thanks for leaving a comment. Sorry we didn’t respond sooner. We’ll write more about this in a future blog and we plan to do some podcasting on this topic as well. It is near and dear to our hearts. But for now let me share a couple of principles that inform our thinking on this. The biggest one is the idea of training by “act” as opposed to training by “word”. In a nutshell right after Ephesians 6:4 tells us to not exasperate our children it says instead to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. The word translated training means literally to train by act. And the word translated instruction means to train by word. So we would encourage you early on to train even self-control more by act than by word. Try not to spend a lot of time reasoning with a toddler – especially one that is tired and cranky (my word describing our kids not yours). Instead say the words but physically move them to the place you want them to go to get control. Grab her hands and help her fold them. Have her look at you as you say and model, “take a deep breath.” I remember there were times Tana had to literally fall asleep on the stairs trying to get control. But when he woke up, he was ready to move on. The message will get through, but at first the strongest message will be the one you train by act. I hope this helps.

  3. Thank you for this. Your comment here is just as valuable as the post. I have twin 3.5 year olds (among other kids) and I feel like I’m losing the battle. But I realize now that I have not truly lead by my actions! I’ve been speaking one thing and acting out another. Thanks for the gentle reminder.

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