The Roots of Learning Self-Control

By Shoshana Hayman, director of Life Center, The Israel Center for Attachment Parenting,

I was looking forward to a pleasant afternoon on the playground with my grandchildren, only to find all too soon I had to play the part of guard, referee and advocate. There were several other children occupying the swings and slides, and the scenarios that unfolded were to be expected—young children pushing each other, shouting at each other, throwing sand at each other, sticking their tongues out at each other and calling each other names. After watching over the 2-year-old on the steps to the slide so he wouldn’t get pushed down by a rambunctious 3-year-old, it was time to put an end to the sand throwing that was taking place among the 5- and 6-year-olds.  Shoshana

In order for children to be patient, courteous and considerate of each other, they need to be flexible, recover easily from disappointment and adapt quickly to new situations. For example, the child who thought he’d have the slide to himself now has to share it with three other children, and when he runs to the swings, he discovers that they are all occupied by children who got there before him. Besides adaptability, children also need to remember that they care about others at the same time that they are trying to fulfill their own desires. These are the same abilities we adults need in our own relationships. When you think of how difficult it can be sometimes for adults in marriage or in work relationships, you can get a picture of how much more difficult it is for children who are not yet fully developed and mature.

Deep instincts and impulses drive young children’s behavior. When they can’t have something they want, when they don’t win, when someone doesn’t want to play with them, when they are not big or strong enough, when they can’t fix something, when they can’t stop time, when they have to wait, and when things aren’t going as they had planned, they are filled with frustration. This frustration drives them to be impulsive, aggressive and attacking. Their reactions are extreme and untempered. Just like an accident, the impulse to attack simply “happens to them.”  If all goes well developmentally, when children reach the age of 7 or 8, they will begin to have more self-control and consideration for others when they play.  

Parents, grandparents, teachers and other adults involved in the lives of children play a critical role in helping them safely discharge the frustration of their social interactions and in supporting the natural development of self-control that grows from within the child.  When children lose control of themselves, they need an adult who can take control and restore order to the situation. In the incident, when one child is hurting another physically, verbally or with gestures, the parent has to take whatever steps are necessary to take care of the symptoms of aggression and stop the hurtful behavior. For example, if children are throwing sand at each other, they need to be intercepted and stopped—calmly, firmly and without much ado.

After the incident is over and children are calm, deeper work can be done to address the root of the problem. This means priming adaptation, the process that grows flexibility and resilience in the child. The child with attacking impulses needs someone who can come alongside his feelings of frustration and help him find the sadness and tears over all that wasn’t working for him. A compassionate adult needs to help the child find his soft heart.

“That didn’t work for you the way you wanted…”
“You were hoping that…”
“It was disappointing that…”

This is the first step towards being able to contain frustration, gain self-control, recover from disappointment and feel caring towards others.

The day will come when we can sit on a bench in the park and rest while children are at play. But while children are young, they need us to protect them from the worst of one another’s behavior. Nature is on our side, and in due time children will mature and gain control over their own behavior.

2 thoughts on “The Roots of Learning Self-Control”

  1. Toda! 🙂 I have been talking about how spanking is NOT a necessary part of discipline or teaching on my FB page because it models and thereby, reinforces the exact frustrated, aggressive, attacking, out-of-control behavior you describe here, naturally being displayed by the children- which leaves no one in the driver’s seat to model the flexibility, compassion and healthy/appropriate discharge of negative feelings and both sides hurting. Obviously, adults who were spanked as chidren had the former qualities demonstrated to them as part of a loving relationship and it’s easy to see why the cycle repeats. It’s posts like these that can help teach those if us willing to learn and break the cycle to raise our children (and grandchildren!) in a more peaceful, compassionate world.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I really needed this article right now. My 5 year old has been testing his limits lately and it’s making both of us frustrated. I need to ask him these questions and talk more rather than react and automatically put him on time out.

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