As our children grow, they will be faced with many difficult choices. Each choice they make will determine their success in school, friendships, and their future. Every parent’s goal is to raise kids who make smart decisions. So how do we begin to teach them to make good choices in the moment? The answer is by teaching them self-control. Self-control is defined as the ability to control oneself, in particular one’s emotions and desires, especially in difficult situations.

Research shows that it is worth the effort to teach our kids self-control beginning at an early age. “Kids who displayed greater amounts of self-control at age four went on to earn better grades, were more popular with peers and teachers, were less likely to report problems with drug use, and earned higher salaries as adults” ( On the other hand, studies show that “Kids with poor self-control are more likely to have aggressive behavior problems … and are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression” ( Now that we have established the importance of self-control, how do you go about teaching it?

Encourage activities that teach self-control

Activities like sports, music lessons, or clubs like Boy Scouts teach kids self-control. Children may not always want to practice, but spending the time to work on their skills will help them become more skilled. Parents can also encourage kids to play games that teach self-control such as Red Light-Green Light and Freeze Tag. Having children spending time in solitary activities like puzzles helps them work toward an achievable goal on their own.

Give kids responsibilities

Kids who have regular chores they are responsible for are more likely to learn self-control. Young kids often need reminders to help them be successful, but older children can be trusted to get them done by a certain time each week without frequent reminders. When kids are given tasks that they do not always enjoy, they must use self-control to complete them. Taking the time to figure out what motivates your child will help them be successful, reach their goals, and increase self-control. For some children this may be a reward for completing assigned chores such as an allowance, an outing, or time with a parent or friend. Each child and family situation is different so it may take a few attempts to figure out what works well for your household.

Enforce limits

Setting limits for children and enforcing them is healthy for all families, but it also has the added benefit of teaching young children self-control. If a child’s ball rolls into the street, they have to make a quick decision whether to run after the ball or stop and ask an adult to retrieve it. A child who waits is showing that they understand the limits their parents have set and they are exercising self-control as they wait to get the ball back. Enforcing limits at a young age and giving kids the choice to stay in the limits or step out of them (within reason) helps them develop self-control.

Delay gratification and reward self-control

When teaching self-control it is important to reward kids for waiting, for finishing the task, and for working hard over time. In today’s society, instant gratification is becoming the norm. By delaying the reward, kids have a goal to work towards and they feel a sense of accomplishment because they have worked toward and completed their goals. This method teaches not only self-control, but also builds self-esteem and emphasizes the value of hard work.

Self-control and Discipline

Quite often, young children become upset when being disciplined. Teaching children to respond positively to correction helps build self-control. Try these tips:

  • Teach children to work through their emotions
  • Don’t brush off their feelings, talk through them
  • Model appropriate behavior and self-control
  • Enforce limits and praise the child when they make a good choice
  • Be consistent with discipline
Sarah Lyons