Teaching Self-Regulation

I came across an opinion piece on a news website during my morning peruse. With the heading “Minecraft turned my child into a monster”, I just had to check it out. How could a game turn a child into a monster?! I was also interested in it as a gaming and parenting article as I like to keep up with and understand my child.

Half way through reading, I was wondering why the game was being blamed and it not being a parenting issue. Shouldn’t the parent be the one defining the rules and setting the boundaries? I kept reading and the way the story unraveled was really interesting, I have certainly had similar experiences when it’s time to switch off. The writer had to recognize his child’s behaviour and used it as a learning experience. I started to wonder how self-regulation or self-control is learned and taught. I started to search and read various resources.

Teaching kids how to be self-regulating and in control is no easy feat as many parents can attest. They lash out and throw many tantrums, interrupt and demand immediate attention. A child’s seemingly favourite thing to do is push every known boundary to the very limit which makes setting the example quite difficult at times. I wondered how kids learn self-regulation. Am I on the right track, teaching my kids how to make the right decisions? Turns out I could do better, making small changes and be a better model in communicating with my 6 year old and teach differently to my 3 year old. Sometimes, I forget he is only 3.

So how do kids learn self-control? I’ve read a few articles and studies. What I am finding is in early life, babies are learning from the people around them. Self-regulation begins at around one year old and continues to grow and develop into adulthood.
The common themes I have found in the articles I have read boil down to the following:

  • Setting clear and age appropriate boundaries and rules for kids and sticking to them. Setting the boundaries, rules and expectations before an activity gets everyone to the same understanding. The child understands the expectation that you are not buying treats while at the supermarket this time or reminded of table manners before entering a restaurant. I like to give 5 min warnings before finishing a game. I set the expectation.
  • Display the behaviour you want to see. Kids are the best at copying anyone and everyone! Remember that saying “monkey see, monkey do”? As a parent, I get that now.
  • Praise all the positives! Call out every time they do the right thing. Give out high fives, a sticker or a cuddle and thank them. We all like praise for doing a super job and they will be more likely to do it again.
  • Focus on the do’s rather than the don’ts. Phrase things positively and they tend to go down better. “Stop shouting” becomes “please lower your voice” and “Don’t run” becomes “slow down” or “we walk inside”.
  • Consequences matter. If you make a threat, follow through or they will call your bluff every time. Natural consequence is great, where it’s safe. If they don’t want to wear a jacket? They will learn what cold is. If they don’t eat at dinner time? They will be hungry and need to wait until snack time.

So how does this all relate to the article?
After some thinking and research I could see the writer used many of these techniques to coach the child and help him recognize his feelings. The child was given another opportunity to display appropriate behaviour with help and both parent and child learned from the experience.

What I learned from all this is how I need to deal with each child and realize they are at very different stages developmentally. I also learned that self-control is a limited resource that, when over used, will run out. I need to find where their limits are and ensure I’m not giving them too many chores or boring tasks at a time. I need to work on phrasing as well. Saying things like, lets finish this task and we can play a game, and set the target to motivate them.

The positive is that I can still help them develop these skills, self-control is a practiced skill that can become stronger.  In relation to game time in our house, we set game time boundaries with my kids. Chores need to be done first and rarely do they get to play electronics during the week unless it school work. I wish they had more time to just play but we don’t. I am trying to plan more time into out weekends for downtime with them and for them.

I’d love to know what you think or how you moderate game time. Have you encountered the same tantrums from older children? How have you dealt with it?

One Comment
  1. Nice article, Natanie!

    Do you have links to the original article or any articles/sites you used for research? I’d love to read on my own (and in the future it might be nice to include them either in the article or in a glossary). :-)

    As for our own experience, I definitely agree with your points. We try to keep expectations and consequences age and personality appropriate, and to not overtax the kids with too many late nights or errands while hungry since this sets up situations where even an adult would lose control.

    We emphasize over and over the need to control your emotions, and have books like Angry Octopus by Lori Lite and others to teach techniques for bringing our emotions under control. Then we practice them before and during situations.

    When I was a camp counselor, I learned the benefits of phrasing things positively (Walk Please! is a favorite phrase of mine), and as a parent I’ve expanded the ways I can say “no” beyond those two letters. I also try to explain the “why” (age appropriately) because I know that *I* find it much harder to obey if I don’t know why a rule or request has been made.

    We don’t limit screen time by minutes (as some pundits recommend), but rather by priorities since we this is how it works as an adult. If the kids have done their homework, finished their dinner (but not gulped-and-dashed), and have no pending chores, then they’re free to watch or play their shows/games. We regulate what they’re allowed to watch/play, but within that list, they’re free to pick what they want.They also don’t have free internet access (they’re behind a whitelisted firewall) since they’re only 5 and 7, and the TV and computers are in the common area. I doubt they’ll ever be allowed electronics in their bedrooms (I can hear the 16yo howls already).

    We do, of course, try to get outside time as well, since I feel that nature is particularly beneficial to boys, counteracting the effect of too much electronic stimulation. It would help if we as parents liked the outdoors more, but that just highlights a growth opportunity for us as well.

    As they grow up, they’ll get opportunities to make choices and see how successful those choices were, in the safety of home. Real consequences can be a powerful teaching tool, especially for boys.

    I feel that as a parent, it’s critical to raise my children in such a way that by high school they’re able to regulate and prioritize their own time. I will have failed as a parent if my kids go to university and flunk out of their first semester because they lose their life to the newest MMO/MOBA/VR game because they never had the opportunity to build up an immunity to that admittedly powerful draw at home.

    Lastly, three books I’ve found particularly useful are “Boys Adrift” by Leonard Sax, “The Way of Boys” by Anthony Rao, and “Why Gender Matters” also by Leonard Sax.

Comments are closed.