Teaching Self Control

teaching self control“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Proverbs 25:28

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” James 4:3

Most of us, at some point or another, have seen the devastating effects in the life of someone who lacks self-control.  In any area of life, if self-control is not exercised, it can mean very difficult and even harmful consequences.  Sadly, these negative consequences are often not limited to self, but affect others also.

The longer I am a mother, the more I realize what a mirror my children can be for me.  Life since having Brant has progressively become more difficult in some respects while being very enjoyable in others.

I’ve mentioned Tara’s napping issues.   She has consistently been very rough with Brant and has intentionally sought to hurt him at times.   Her whining at times as increased even as we’ve made progress with her manners.  She gets easily angered, and her lack of emotional control in general has escalated.  I too have struggled with my own emotions toward Tara.  I have had several meltdowns out of desperation of not knowing what to do, but knowing that something is wrong with me and with her.  I have cried out to God for wisdom, have sought out wisdom from older and wiser women, and have learned from those younger women who are a step or two ahead of me in the process.  Lately, I have been fortunate to see evidences of the Lord’s grace in countless ways with regard to my pleas for wisdom.

For certain, I have been able to see that I struggle with self-control in certain areas of life too.  I have been able to correlate her lack of self-control with my own lack of self-control.  I was not raised in a home where Christ was treasured above all else.  As a result, many Biblical principles and basic life skills were not actively taught or instilled in me.  Self-control was one of them that wasn’t.  Please don’t hear me say that since I was never taught Biblical self-control that I’m not at fault.  I am completely responsible and accountable for my own actions.  Now, as a sinful adult, I’m still in the process of learning how to exercise self-control!  This has served to give me an even deeper sense of urgency to help my children learn to exercise self-control.  It is immensely harder to learn as an adult!

Identifying my own struggles with self-control has been a huge help in knowing how to proceed.  But, I found myself still having questions like, “How do you go about teaching self-control?”

Here is what has helped me.

I was in need of the following reminders:

  1. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15), and…
  2. It is a matter of the heart.  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.   All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
  3. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and, therefore, doesn’t come naturally.  In fact, a total lack of self-control and gratifying the desires of the flesh is what comes most naturally (Galatians 5:17).
  4. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.   Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.   For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:11-14).

These truths helped me take a deep breath.  It should be my expectation that my children will demonstrate a total lack of self-control.  On the flip side, since I have been saved by Christ, I am not bound to sin.  It is in these moments that I have the opportunity to preach the gospel to my children and myself.

I recently read an excellent article that helped me understand practically how to teach self-control.  In it, the author states that “self-control is learned when self is controlling self.” It is the Holy Spirit who ultimately teaches and enables this.  In my first attempts, I sought avenues that were not helpful in achieving my end goal of teaching Tara to control herself.  Instead, I was seeking to control her.  This could have disastrous consequences!  By controlling her, I am setting her up for devastating failure later in life when I won’t be around to exert my control.  Thankfully, the Lord helped me to see this early so that I could move forward in a manner that is consistent with Scripture and would be most beneficial to her:  teaching her how to control her own emotions and actions.

In the same article, the author explains (emphasis mine),

We are constraining the volitional part of the child to control the appetite part. In other words, we are exercising the spirit and will of the child, causing the soulish self to exercise command over the fleshly self.   Just as we move the limbs of a stroke victim in anticipation of the day when he will be able to move them, so we exercise the child’s will against the resistance of his fleshly drives, and this in anticipation of the day when his soul will be mature enough to value temperance. By causing the child to employ the mechanics of moral choice, he is denying his propensity to intemperance and is stunting the growth of his flesh, keeping it from gaining ascendancy over the soul. Thus, when the child is old enough to hold his own moral values, he will already possess a will that is accustomed to exercising control over the flesh, and he will already be comfortable with the idea that life is built around the concept of self-control and self-denial. By way of illustration, we are not waiting for him to become a confirmed alcoholic; we are causing him to refuse the first drink.”

Wow!  It took me a few reads to really grasp what was being said.  I mentioned that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, but, as implied in this excerpt, it is also a choice of the will.  This helped me immensely to realize that while at times it seemed as if Tara could not stop whining, that was not true.  I thought about it in my own life.  I have the choice to complain or not, to give in and let go or reign in destructive emotions.  However, since self-control is learned and we are helped by the Holy Spirit to exercise it (whom we do not believe is currently indwelling her), she needs someone to teach her that she has a choice and how to do it.

Things began clicking.  I felt empowered.  Now that I understood what self-control really was and how to help Tara learn it, I felt much more equipped as a mother.

In the days following these revelations, my husband and I both noticed a big change in Tara.  And in my own struggles with bad attitudes. Instead of getting upset with Tara when she lost control, I began recognizing these times as tender teaching moments.  Not all of them have been easy or fun, but most of them have been successful.

How have I done it?

Well, first I cried out to the Lord for wisdom. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  I knew that I would not be able to walk forward in a manner pleasing to God on my own.

Second, I needed to identify the specific areas in which she was not demonstrating self-control.  Blane and I sat down together and evaluated things.  Typically whining, complaining, pouting, excessive crying over non-issues, and being maliciously rough with her brother have been the biggest.

Third, I have sought not to allow Tara to practice indulging her desires.  As soon as she begins to whine, complain, pout, cry without reason (there are plenty of times when crying is appropriate and good), I begin teaching and training.  This is when it gets difficult as teaching self control is not easy!  The following steps are used simultaneously to this one.

I have sought to confront Tara regarding these specific attitudes and actions with Scripture.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  I not only share these verses with her, but she has memorized them so that when I address an issue, she knows why it is not acceptable to be doing it.  There are countless verses that address attitudes and actions that are manifestations of the heart’s position before God.  Some of the verses she has memorized include:

- “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” Proverbs 17:22.

- “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God” Philippians 2:14-15

- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” Ephesians 4:32.

- “Do to others as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets” Matthew 7:12.

When teaching self control, upon confrontation and correction, I demonstrate a more controlled response for her to learn.  Sometimes we practice it a few times, replaying the scenario with her showing me the self-controlled response.  Sometimes, discipline needs to occur because she does not want to change the position of her heart and therefore her actions.   She needs to understand that there are consequences to indulging the desires of the flesh.  The article I have mentioned above addresses this very issue,

“If flesh is more fun, why would a child choose principle? He won’t unless you add some element that convinces him there is more immediate pleasure in principle than passion, or more immediate pain in passion than in principle.”

Lastly, I have sought to be consistent in teaching self control.  I have found that this is perhaps the most crucial and most difficult aspects of parenting!  If I expect her to demonstrate self-control most of the time and allow her to lose it one time, I allow her to hope that it is okay to continue on this way.  It is the same for me.  If I exercise self-control most of the time but allow myself to lose it one time, a slippery slope toward a pattern of a lack of self-control begins.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of teaching self-control that I have encountered.  We have noticed a significant improvement in Tara, however, when we are consistent with her.

All of these things have helped me in my goal of teaching self control to Tara.  It has not been easy, but it has been rewarding to see fruit from my labor growing.   Having an eternal perspective and a vision for motherhood has helped me immensely.  I am desirous of shepherding her heart to Christ and of shaping her character to that which will be pleasing to God.

Have you experienced the difficulty of teaching a toddler self-control?  If so, what has been the biggest help or tool to you as you are teaching self control?

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One Response to Teaching Self Control

  1. Erika says:

    Okay, this is about the 7th post I’ve read tonight and it just occured to me that it would be kind to leave a comment letting you know how much I am enjoying these posts! This one was particularly helpful and encouraging for me, as we are right in the midst of this kind of self-control training with Anson. I liked the example of moving muscles of a stroke victim so that when he is able to move them himself, they are ready. Now, onto a few more posts before bed. :-)