Cultivating Self-Control In Kids

A few years ago, a friend had sent me a link to an episode of the “Colbert Report” where Stephen Colbert invited Walter Mischel of famous the Marshmallow study done decades ago. To know more about the test click here.

I got really excited watching this clip and tried it on my then 5 year old and this is how it went.

Me: Hey Hari, look what I have for you, your favourite candy

Hari: Oh, yummm, can I have it now?

Me: Ok here’s the deal, I will give this to you, but if you don’t eat it now and wait for 15 minutes, I will give you two more, which means then you will have 3, not just 1. (I thought I had almost nailed it, and then)

Hari: But mommy, you have told me NO MORE THAN ONE CANDY A DAY, so it’s ok, I don’t want 2 more and she ran off with the one.

Somewhere in her heart, she knew that her mother would NEVER give her give her even 1 (unless it was a reward), let alone 2 more. J

And that, my friends, was the end of the marshmallow test. Although it did not go as planned, it taught me 2 important things – My daughter knows me too well and self-control is much more than succumbing to eating a marshmallow or a candy in this case.

So, what exactly is Self control? Self-control is the ability to resist impulsive behaviour in favour of achieving more fulfilling positive outcomes/goals. It may not be something we are born with, but can be cultivated best when started early.

The 2 most important levels at which self control often get dissuaded are Body (physical) and Mind (emotional).  However by practice, these can be overcome and mastered over time. The key is consistency and being aware of situations that test one’s ability to exert self control.

Here are some of the ways to teach kids about self control:

  1. GOOD HABITS: Early application of self-control makes a rock solid foundation of our habits (which often undermine self-control). Help children develop good habits, by regulation of sleep, food, exercise (both mental and physical). Regulation is the key here.
  2. TRIGGERS: Identify triggers that make them behave impulsively. For kids these triggers are in the form of toys, food, gadgets, many a times studies etc. Help them understand those triggers and help them find alternatives to override their natural impulse. For e.g., it has recently become my daughter’s second nature to retort back angrily if I don’t understand something she is saying and vice versa. So, I often have to remind her to express her dissatisfaction in another way and not by shouting and being angry. I have to constantly remind myself to do this instead of retorting to her anger with “How dare you talk to me like this”, which is naturally a parents impulsive response.
  3. MOTIVATION: Many a times children may not lack self-control, they just need motivation. Motivate them by setting goals, rewards or simply making a task more interesting. . For e.g. Hari used to dislike writing alphabets (she is a number girl) so I would make her understand that, by practicing alphabets she will ultimately be able to write letters/emails to her grandparents and friends when they are away. So this got her motivated to finish without much resistance and perhaps renews her liking towards it.
  4. SELF DISTRACTION: Constructive self distraction is another great way to build self control. So say if your child comes back from karate class super hungry and wants to eat the bag of chips (when its actually time for dinner), distract him/her by asking for some help setting the table or offering an alternative food product or sharing something amazing incident that might have happened that day (all this while acknowledging and empathizing of how hungry they are and of course getting a healthy meal ready).
  5. ROLE MODEL: Example is better than precept. So next time you find yourself (as a parent) in a compelling situation, talk it out loud with your kids and share with them your experience of exercising self control and how it led to a better outcome and soon your children will follow suit.


Self control helps us remain focused on our goals by deterring external influences that would otherwise distract us from the same. Once children experience the rewards (tangible or not) by applying self control, it boosts their morale and encourages them to face challenges. This goes a long way especially when children enter teenage years and subsequently need to make lots of choices themselves. Ultimately self control is all about progressive analysis of a given  situation and then reacting instead of a mindless impulsive reaction.

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