Tough Love


 A parenting special by Dr Justin Coulson.

Self-control is the ability to say “no” when you really want to say “yes”, or to say “yes” when you’d prefer to say “no”!

Self-control is delaying gratification and controlling our impulses.

A classic experiment on self-control

In 1972 one of the most iconic, well-known psychology experiments of all time was conducted by a psychologist named Walter Mischel. Mischel wanted to discover how children responded to an opportunity to exercise self-control. He gave a bunch of children aged between 4 and 6 years a simple test. One at a time, the children sat at a table and were given a marshmallow on a plate. They were told they could eat it now, or if they waited a few minutes until he returned they could have two! (They actually had to wait fifteen minutes in total.)

Here’s some superb (and cute) footage re-enacting how it looks

Mischel conducted follow up studies with his original participants later on and found that those who exercised self-control enjoyed greater success in a variety of ways later in their lives compared to those with less interest in self-regulation.

Other research has shown that compared with people who have high self-control, people with low self-control die younger, have more psychiatric issues and disorders, are less healthy, are more likely to be obese, smoke, drink or use drugs, are more likely to have unsafe (and impulsive) sex, drive drunk, and commit crimes! And those with more self-control have better relationships, more successful work lives, and have higher wellbeing.

What a list!

So how do we teach it to our children?

MowingThere are two important issues to be aware of.

First, if we constantly try to influence and subtly (or explicitly) control our children they will not develop self-control. That’s because we will be in control.

Decades of research shows that being too controlling of our kids is bad for their development. They don’t become responsible. They simply wait to be controlled.

Second, demanding that a child show self-control and be responsible can sometimes be too much, too soon. We must ensure we are encouraging our children to do things that are age-appropriate. (Additionally, making such demands ironically means we’re in control rather than them, and we’re being responsible!)

To teach self-control (and impulse control/delayed gratification) to your children


  1. Be a model. If you are calm, intentional, and ‘in control’ of yourself, your children will learn from your behaviour. However, if you are explosive or ‘lose control’, your children will learn the same behaviour no matter how much you ‘demand’ something better of them. If you leave mess, don’t exercise, or stare at a computer all day, the kids will follow your example.
  2. Set limits Children. will be far more likely to regulate their behaviour when they understand limits, particularly if they are involved in the process (where appropriate).
    For tips on setting limits, check out this blog post from Happy Families
  3. Give responsibilities. Expect children to contribute (again in an age-appropriate way. We can’t ask four year-olds to do a perfect job mowing the lawn! But they can “help” with the dishes, tidying up, and so on). The more responsibilites they have, the more they need to develop responsibility and a sense of control.
    When they fail to live up to their responsibilities, take their tasks/chores back a notch, and then boost it again a few weeks later. Alternatively, give those responsibilities they had to another sibling, but give additional privileges to that sibling as well (while simultaneously reducing privileges for the less responsible child). Things will change pretty fast!
  4. Let your children make decisions for themselves. No, I’m not suggesting open-slather. It’s not a free-for-all. But the way that children learn how to make decisions is by making decisions – not by following directions! When a decision needs to be made, talk about the ramifications of their decisions and help them think through the consequences of their choices.
  5. Talk about self-control. Share this information with your children. Talk about the psychology of control. Watch the video with them. Laugh about it, but also share the ramifications (positive and negative) about self-control. It may be particularly useful to encourage your children to tell you about times when they did or did not control themselves. Have them identify the outcomes of their choices to use self-control.
  6. Do your own experiment. Once you’ve watched the video with the marshmallows and talked about it, have some fun with it. Show your children that they CAN develop self-control, and that the outcomes are worth it.

Teaching children self-control requires a delicate balance, an ability to guide rather than direct, and lots of encouragement. But if you can control yourself as you guide your children, you will be putting them on a path that leads to success in life!


St GeorgeSt George

One of the most popular saints, St George is the Patron saint of England and of soldiers. As a Roman solider, he was beheaded on Apr 23, 303 AD by the Emperor Diocletian after protesting the persecution of Christians. Icons show him on a white horse driving a spear through the head of a dragon to rescue a maiden. Rich in symbolism, these images depict not a literal story, but an allegory of the battle between Truth and Goodness (the maiden) and evil (the dragon).

St George has inspired thousands of young people, particularly boys, brave, chivalrous and self-disciplined. His banner of the red cross of a martyr on a white background was adopted for the uniform of Crusader Knights and later became the flag of England.

Self-Control Games

Test your kid’s self-control with these little games. One of our favourite games as children was to softly tickle the soles of each other’s feet to see how long we could resist scratching or squirming. We used feathers, a hairbrush, wind, satin ribbons… anything we could find in the quest to make our opponent squirm. The blinking game was similar; staring into each other’s eyes, the first to blink lost the round.

Over to you! What did you think? What do you do in your family to encourage self-control in your kids? How do you introduce them to responsibility? What have you struggled with? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

This article featured in the April 2013 edition of the CathFamily eMagazine. For m0re from this edition, check out:

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Dr Justin Coulson

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