There is one skill that is the most important one to teach our children. To call it one skill, however, is a little misleading.
It’s really a set of skills– a whole host of skills. At the center of those skills is the ability to control something– a behavior, a thought, movement, or a feeling.
Generally, this is called self-regulation. But I am also talking about executive function (control in the brain), emotion-regulation (control of feelings) as well as behavioral regulation (control of actions & movement). All of these together make up a set of abilities called self-regulation skills.
Most of you have probably heard about the marshmallow test in which a researcher asks a young child (usually between ages 3 and 5) if they would like one or two marshmallows. The marshmallows are placed in front of them and the researcher leaves the room.
Before the researcher leaves the child is presented with a choice: “You can eat one marshmallow now or wait until I come back and then you can have both of the marshmallows.
This is technically called ‘delay of gratification’ or the ability to suppress an impulse (eat that lovely marshmallow) in order to meet another goal– listen to the authority figure of the researcher and wait.
Delay of gratification is only one self-regulation skill, albeit the most well-known one, and it has been linked to many outcomes– children who wait longer are more sociable, have better grades, and even better SAT scores years later. There are also brain differences between the children who were better at delaying and those who were not as good at waiting.
Self-regulation is partially genetic– some children will naturally be better regulated than others, however, self-regulation is very teachable as well.
If you think about it, controlling impulses underlies all of the social and cognitive skills children are learning — and that is why I think it is the most important skill. We all want our children to have good friends, to be able to learn, to be good at solving problems, to enjoy life, and to savor the good moments.
Self-regulation underlies all of these things.
How to Teach Your Child Self-Regulation
1. Help your child recognize the higher-goal.
Most impulse control boils down to this:
Controlling an impulse in order to meet a higher goal.
Why don’t we grab toys away from our friend? Because we want to get along with our friends.
“When Sarah comes over to play we can pick out a few toys you can take turns with. That is being a good friend. You can play some games together too. Then, this afternoon, you will have all your toys to yourself again.”
Why don’t we yell while the librarian is reading the story? Because we want to hear the story.
“When the librarian reads the book, all the children are quiet so we can hear the story. There will be a time you can sing and dance too.”
Why don’t we eat the birthday cake on the table? Because it’s our friend’s cake and we don’t want her to be disappointed when it’s time to blow out the candles.
“This is Sam’s birthday cake. Keep your fingers away from the cake. He will blow out the candles after we sing “Happy Birthday!” Won’t he be excited! And then won’t you be excited to get a whole piece of cake for yourself!”
The higher goal is usually about empathy, social relationships, or learning (being productive).
The first step is helping children recognize the higher-goal of the situation and providing the time and space for their impulses too — it’s not that all impulses are bad, its that they have to be regulated to the right time and place.
2. Use naturally occurring situations to teach self-regulation strategies.
Things like waiting to open holiday presents, taking turns with a prized toy, and being quiet while a story is read aloud at the library are all example of natural situations which are teachable moments for self-regulation skills.
These situations are truly challenging for younger children. Before the event or situation, explain the expectations and the higher-goal. Then, in the moment, help them be able to meet that goal. Give them the strategies to regulate their impulses.
Studies about self-regulation have shown is that it isn’t about the child having the sheer willpower to control impulses, but instead having lots of strategies to help them regulate those impulses.
If your child is having a hard time taking turns, you can try setting a timer. That provides them with a more concrete cue to help them regulate. Also, using the term “taking turns,” is much more concrete than “sharing.” Having some games that kids can do together can help too. If your child needs to wait, do something else with them, sing a song, tell a story.
If your child is waiting for a special treat, or even just at a restaurant, do something else with them — like sing a song, tell a story, play I spy.
By scaffolding these skills you are helping them build regulation strategies they will use their whole life.
3. Acknowledge the challenge of regulation.
This is hard for kids. If they struggle, acknowledge it. If they get frustrated, acknowledge it.
“Sometimes it feels hard to wait. When you are waiting you can do something else.” When I tell my son he has to wait for a special treat, he might say: “But can I just look at it, can I just touch it?” I say, “Let’s take a quick look and then let’s do something else, it is harder to wait when you are looking at it.”
I acknowledge that it is hard, I also acknowledge his desire (impulse), and offer a strategy to help him regulate.
4. Have your child make a choice and a plan.
Cognitively, a well-regulated older child would be able to look through a set of options and make a reasoned decision. Or, faced with a wide array of possibilities, that child could make a plan.
Our goal is for our children to develop well-regulated thought processes. To be able to sort through the chaos, so to speak, and inhibit distractions.
How do we foster this when they are young?
I had a professor once who said, “No child is ever too young to make a choice, carrots or peas? Which one do they spit out the least?”
Give your child choices throughout the day.
Do you want to walk to the playground or play in the backyard? Will you have milk or water? Which pair of tennis shoes will you wear today?
Providing your child with plenty of opportunities for making choices gives them the practice they need to develop decision-making skills and gives them a sense of mastery over their own life.
At younger ages remember to give a choice between two options and as they grow, increase the options.
Give your child the opportunity to make a plan.
This morning we are staying at home and we can do any of these things- what would you like to do first, second and third?
My Aunt took her preteen and teenage sons to New York City once for vacation and each son got a day to plan. They planned the activities, the transportation to those activities, and the schedule of the day. I think this is a great activity for older kids.
You can do similar things with younger children as well. Look at a map for a local museum and have your child help plan which exhibits you’ll visit. Or have your child plan an activity at home.
One of my son’s favorite activities is to write out manuals for his “inventions” or for activities. These kinds of things are great exercises for cognitive regulation.
5. Play control games.
People often ask me — but how do I teach my child self-regulation. This isn’t something you can tell your child how to do. It is something they have to learn by doing and by practicing.
So, when you aren’t in one of those naturally occurring situations, the best thing to do to help children practice self-regulation skills is to play games.
Games present all kinds of challenges that are important for self-regulation. The basic definition of a game is to control impulses to meet a higher-goal (win the game!). AND it’s fun! It doesn’t feel like you are practicing self-regulation.
Any game that asks kids to control something is fostering self-regulation. Like a whispering game, slow down speed up, the freeze game/dance, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and similar.
Playing board games or card games is another way that allows children a chance to practice things like taking turns, remembering rules, paying attention, shifting from one focus to another, and inhibiting impulses.
6. Remember self-regulation skills develop over a lifetime.
Helping your child develop these skills will stay with them their whole life.
It also feels like it takes a lifetime for them to learn it.
That’s because it kind of does! You’re still developing executive function and so am I. In fact, I think becoming a parent is a great catalyst for developing greater self-regulation! I write all about that here.
The organization of the brain system that underlies self-regulation occurs around the age of three.
Rapid development occurs in the system until the age of five.
The system matures between the ages of 5 to 7, with girls being a little ahead of boys.
Development continues at a slower pace until puberty when a second brain growth spurt means a whole new level of regulation skills will need to be organized and learned in adolescence.
Development in the self-regulation of the brain is thought to be complete sometime in your mid-30s. However, I believe that things like becoming a parent or other challenges spur growth in self-regulation — perhaps not at the brain level, but growth nevertheless.
All those teachable moments will add up over the years. There may be times when you feel like you don’t see any progress — it develops slowly and gradually. It is one of those things where you’ll see effects much later.
7. Realize it is Just as Important to let go of control.
One of my favorite quotes from a pair of researchers who study self-regulation is this:
“The human goal is to be as undercontrolled as possible and overcontrolled as necessary”– Block & Kremen (1996).
As parents, we spend ALOT of time trying to teach our children to control impulses. It is easy to forget that it is just as important to let them be “undercontrolled” for lack of a better term.
I loved it when I would return to the room as a researcher in those delay of gratification studies and the kids would stuff both marshmallows in their mouth as happy as could be, no restraint at all. They waited until I came back and then they reveled in the fact of being able to enjoy those marshmallows. At a young age, they had learned how to really savor, enjoy, and let go.
In other cases, kids would seemingly do a good job waiting, but when I came back in the room they were overcontrolled and anxious. Those kids could hardly enjoy the marshmallow. So, it isn’t just about waiting or controlling, it’s about being flexible in that control.
Ultimately, we want our children to have the ability to control impulses when needed and to be able to let loose when they can.
If you notice your kids being pretty controlled and tending towards anxiety make it your mission to help them learn that sometimes it is okay to let loose.
Teaching your children when to let go of control is equally important as teaching them when to be in control.
One of my favorite family traditions is that on your birthday you wake up to everyone in the family singing, a present, and a piece of cake. Why, on your birthday, should you have to wait all day!?