I came across the Straits Times article “How well will a kid fare in life? Study offers clues” (8 Oct 2017). The finding proposed that an adult’s life, to a certain extent can be predicted in one’s childhood. Self-control, which is the ability to regulate one’s emotions in response to experiences is listed as one key factor among the rest. The study got me thinking.
Young parents need to recognise that their children are growing up in a different era. They expect instant gratification. Being impatient or making a loud enough noise are often rewarded. You are not alone if your children are exhibiting similar behaviours.
The good news is that the die is not cast in stone. The cognitive control system is based on the prefrontal cortex in the brain that does not reach full maturity until mid-20s. In other words, your child’s brain is malleable and it can be trained to regulate emotions and resist distractions.
Based on my online research and everyday experiences as a parent of 3 young children, I have compiled the following and hope they would provide a reference on fostering self-control and discipline in your children.
1. Regulate Your Own Emotions First At their tender age, your little ones learn through modelling your behaviour. The way you manage your emotions during a disagreement and the words you use in your daily interactions with the family members provide important cues for their development. Hence, the most important thing you can do is to learn to regulate your own emotions so you can show them the effects of staying calm and taking control of the situation.
2. Using Your Own Experiences as Teaching Moments Remember children see, children follow. When you resisted a temptation for an immediate reward or exerted control over your emotions e.g. put away checking emails on your tablet to have dinner with the family or opted for plain water instead of sugary drink to quench your thirst, use these as opportunities to show and relate to your children the importance of self- control. Explain to them why you make those choices, their effects and how they could impact surrounding people. It can be as simple and straight forward as “I choose to drink plain water over sugary drinks as it quenches our thirst and is better for our body too.”
3. Establish Age Appropriate Routines As Early As Possible Daily routines can be useful to help children develop self-discipline and self-control. Start with task-oriented activity with situational cues such as brushing teeth after waking up, packing the bag before bedtime, washing hands and legs after entering the house etc and progress to time sensitive activities such as limiting screen time, observing meal times and adhering to homework session as the children gradually understand the concept of time. When a behaviour gets initiated automatically, it would take the child lesser effort to ignore the distractions.
4. Timely Reminders and Role Playing Research revealed that it will be useful to remind young children about our expectations or rules just before each routine or activity. Getting them to repeat your sentences or engage in a role play can help them stay focus on what they need to do. Ample and timely reminders should be given and in the case of younger children, they should be provided more frequently. For instance, I would remind my younger child a couple of times (usually in the space of 5 minutes referencing to the long hands of the clock) before switching off the TV. Have a couple of ready answers to handle your child’s rejections at the initial stage.
5. Alter the Perceived Value of Options or Goals When the object of desire or options are perceived as less attractive or favourable, a child’s motivation of having them is likely being reduced. For example you are struggling to reduce the amount of sweet your children are taking. In this case, telling and helping them to visualise that eating excessive sweets could result in decayed teeth would likely help to bring down the attractiveness of popping the next sweet into their mouth. Showing kids pictures of decayed teeth might help bring across the message more effectively.
6. Reduce or Remove the Temptation When getting the children to do what is required is crucial, you can consider reducing or removing the temptation. When they are fighting, you can isolate and give them each something that they like to work on. By doing so, you refocus their attention to concentrate on activities that motivates them. This is why I always bring along my children’s colouring books when we are out and about. If you are trying to correct binge snacking, remove those unhealthy food from their sight or replace them with healthier choices.
Kids will be kids, they will fumble, tumble and make themselves look silly at times. Instead of punishing them for their behaviour, be patient, provide guidance and be responsive to their emotional needs. Do bear in mind that each child is unique. Some children are naturally better at self-controlling than others but almost everybody can find ways to make it easier.
I know it is easier said than done. I have encountered tough days too. However, our children are still learning to navigate through their lives and they need us to be by their side. They need our trust and love. Grit your teeth, take deep breaths, persist and adapt your strategies along this discovery journey to make them work better for you and your child. It will be worth it.
Beside self-control, there are other important values that we can instil in our children.