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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Helping Children Gain Self Control

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 2nd 2012

Helping Children Gain Self ControlMy grandson was eight or nine months of age and sitting on my lap, I was impressed with his ability to pull my pen out of my shirt pocket and place it back in. He placed all of his attention on the pen and worked hard to steady his hand, grasp the pen, pull it out and, having done that, replace it in the pocket. For me, his grandfather, this was a hopeful sign of his future ability to control himself and do well in school.

When he was two years old, my daughter, his mother, impressed me with her ability to, with patience, teach him how to gain control over himself. While eating in a restaurant with the whole family, all of us were faced with the challenge of how to control his behavior in order that he not disturb the other customers and all of us trying to have some family time together. Based on my childhood, I knew that one strategy was to  order the child to sit still and be quiet. I was told that often enough. I do not remember how successful it was on my behavior. However, my daughter came armed with toy trucks and cars. His mother asked him if he could put similar looking cars together. Then, if he could put different looking ones together. That way, he spent a lot of time on solving the problems. He also tried to figure out how to attach the ladder to the fire truck. The strategy was successful, he enjoyed himself and we enjoyed him and the time together with each other.

When we look at small children and wonder to ourselves what is the predictor of whether or not they will be successful, most parents focus on intelligence. In actuality, it is self control that is the best predictor of success in later life. A myriad of studies demonstrate that kids who demonstrated good self control at age three were successful at school at age 13 and successful in careers at age 31. The ability to delay gratification and think ahead are both aspects of self control. When not driven to immediately gratify drives there is time to think, plan, problem solve and focus attention.

While the ability to delay gratification is partly inherited, much like temperament and personality, much of it is learned. That is where parents come in. There are imaginative ways parents can help their children learn to increase their patience and self control. What my daughter did by her own instincts and some leanings from when she was a child, was to help him learn to focus attention on solving age appropriate problems. Always, it is a mistake to order a child to sit still or be quiet. What succeeds is encouraging them to use their imagination and use time productively. These are parts of what is often called, "executive functions," or the ability to arrange things so that problems can be solved.

It is important for all parents to keep in mind that the reason children exhibit little self control is that their brains and brain functions are not fully developed and will not be until approximately twent years of age. Also, boys lag behind girls in brain development and impulse control.

So, if you are a parent and want your child to grow and develop, intellectually, help develop strategies to keep him busy by encouraging problem solving, thinking and being creative, all  in age appropriate ways.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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