It's Never Too Early to Teach Children Self-Control

By Gormly, Kellie B | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

It's Never Too Early to Teach Children Self-Control


Gormly, Kellie B, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


With a strong-willed toddler -- McKayla, who will be 3 in May -- Lisa Crowley of Beechview has learned to tell her daughter why she can't do something, instead of just telling her not to do it.

This approach makes McKayla more likely to exercise self-control when she is tempted to do something she shouldn't do, Crowley says.

"We really just try to do the best we can to let her know the dangers of what she's doing," says Crowley, 38. "I don't just say 'No'; I give her a reason why I'm telling her 'No.' She's only 2, but I feel like that's how she learns.

"I say, 'I really don't want you to do that because you'll get hurt,' " she says. "She really listens to me."

Self-control and toddlers may seem mutually exclusive, but tots can and must be taught to control their impulses, experts say; otherwise, they will grow into older kids, teens, and eventually adults who don't behave well. A study suggests that children as young as 3 who demonstrate poor self-control are more likely to have problems -- with substance abuse, health, money management and crime -- later in life, compared to young children who show better self- control.

An international team of researchers -- led by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi at Duke University -- reported in a 32-year study published this year that a young child's self-control skills predict the child's health, wealth and criminal history later in life. Demonstrating skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance led to success as an adult, regardless of the child's IQ or family social class.

Sandy Beauregard -- a parent educator for the Greensburg-based ParentWISE program of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania -- says she is not surprised by the findings. Age 3, or even 2 1/2, isn't too young to teach self-control, and it's taught with simple responses to children's behavior, giving kids responsibilities and keeping a consistent schedule.

"That's the appropriate age to start teaching it," Beauregard says. "Teaching them self-control is a matter of not responding immediately to temper tantrums ... (and) learning to give them an opportunity to calm down and then respond."

What does self-control look like in a toddler? It could be a 3- year-old getting angry, but refraining from hitting his sister, Beauregard says.

Moffitt -- who is on a sabbatical in New Zealand and was unavailable for a phone interview -- says in an e-mail that toddlers with self-control can focus on a puzzle or game until they finish it. They can take turns nicely with another child doing the puzzle, and smile with satisfaction when they finish it. Toddlers with poor self-control, on the other hand, may refuse to play with anything that requires effort. Or, they may leave the puzzle to run around the room, lose their temper and throw it at the other child, or end up crying and fussing instead of being satisfied. …

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