Self-control: control or restraint of oneself or one’s actions, feelings, etc. —Dictionary.com

Every parent knows the signs: the scrunched-up face turning red; the balled fists; the tense body; and the mouth forming the perfect scream of frustration. A toddler in the throes of a temper tantrum is the classic example of lack of self control.

But more and more often these days, lack of self control is evident in elementary school children, pre-teens, teenagers and even some adults. “Look at American society today, and you wonder where’s the self control?” asks Kirk Martin, a behavioral therapist and founder of CalmChristianPareting.com. “We want the big house, so we’re under water [owing more than the house is worth]. We want more toys, more things, so we’re drowning in debt. … The rise of smartphones and videogames means we have instant access to information, entertainment and stimulation 24/7.”

The expectation of instant gratification has pushed the virtue of self-control to the back burner. “The benefits of self-discipline are timeless in nature,” says Molly Aden, a homeschooling mother of six in Fairfax, Va. “What has fallen out of favor is the consistent effort necessary to obtain self-discipline.”

The Virtue of Self-Discipline

In our hurried lives, we can easily overlook the importance of self-mastery. Even Christians sometimes forget our calling to be self-controlled. The Bible exhorts us to practice self-control: “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 NIV).

“Christian parents in particular ought to be very concerned about their own disciplines and that of their children. If we as Christian parents have as one of our objectives a character which reflects Christ’s, then self-control will naturally grow in ourselves and, Lord willing, in our children,” says Aden.

While it might seem in looking at the surface of our culture that self-control is no longer widely practiced, there are signs that the pendulum is slowing swinging back in favor of self-mastery. Today, nonbelievers are touting the benefits of self-control. In the New York Times article “Building Self-Control, the American Way” (published Feb. 17, 2012), authors Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang write that “in any culture, the development of self-control is crucial. … It predicts success in education, career and marriage. Indeed, childhood self-control is twice as important as intelligence in predicting academic achievement.”

More studies are supporting the biblical teaching that self-control is beneficial. One recent study documents a correlation between self-control and good health. The study, published in the August 2012 Journal of Pediatrics, found that “the ability to delay gratification as a child may lower a person’s chances of being overweight later in life,” according to a NBCNews.com report of the study. “Academics and social interactions just went better for kids who were more able to delay gratification,” said Tanya Schlam, the lead researcher of the study.

With evidence mounting that self control is necessary for our children’s well-being, parents should help children develop self-discipline. 

The Ways of Self-control

It can be difficult to teach self-mastery to our children if we don’t embody it ourselves. “Self-control begins in the home. The only person you can control in life is yourself,” says Martin. “Yet how many of us as adults [exhibit self-control]? … If the parents cannot control themselves, how can they expect their kids to control themselves?”

Martin suggests the best place to start with teaching self-discipline is for parents to model the fruits of the spirit for their children. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV).

“Self-control is the key to discipline,” he says. “If a child can exercise self-discipline, there is less of a need for us to discipline. Our philosophy is this: our job as parents is to first model self-control in our own lives and then teach our kids how to control themselves.” Here are some ideas for helping children—and adults—with self-mastery.

Pray. This may seem too simple a solution, but praying that you and your children will exhibit the inward and outward signs of self-control is vital to any success in this area. Pray for and with your kids about self-discipline.

Show your struggles. All of us stumble in the area of self-control at one time or another. Share some of your “down” moments with your kids. For example, you could talk at dinner about how you lost your temper at work. Tell how you apologized and what steps you’re taking to avoid future blow-ups, such as not scheduling meetings right before lunch because being hungry makes you irritable. Ask for prayer as you work through this loss of self-control. Letting them see a snippet of how you wrestle with self-mastery can be encouraging. 

Practice. Practicing self-control is no different than practicing a sport. Professional athletes, for example, often do the same drills over and over again. Aamodt and Wang, in the New York Times article, find that “self-control can be built through practice.”

Provide alternative expressions. When kids lose self-control, it’s often manifested with hitting, kicking and screaming. “When was the last time we physically showed our kids how to control their emotions when they are frustrated, disappointed or upset?” says Martin. Direct the child to jump on a mini-trampoline, run around the outside of the house, or do pushups when he or she starts to feel a loss of self-control. 

Delay gratification. Self-discipline can be taught by not giving in immediately to a child’s request. For more than 10 years, Martin has hosted a camp for around 1,500 children with challenging behavior and special needs. “We would take them to Best Buy and let them look around, picking up video games and movies they wanted. Then we’d leave the store without purchasing anything. We physically taught them self-control,” he explains.

We should keep in mind that the consequences of not teaching self-control can set our children up for failure later in life. “Self-control helps teenagers resist the temptations of alcohol, drugs and sexual activity. Self-control is essential if our kids are going to be financially independent and responsible,” says Martin.

It’s never too late to begin a corrective course in self-discipline for you and your family. Even though setbacks will be inevitable, remember that Christ himself calls us to a life of self-control. “If we want our kids (and families) to reflect the nature of Christ, then we all need to demonstrate the fruit of the spirit when stressful situations occur,” says Martin. 

Sarah Hamaker is a certified Leadership Parenting Coach through the Rosemond Leadership Parenting Coach Institute. She’s also a freelance writer and editor. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at www.sarahhamaker.com.

Publication date: October 2, 2012