Teaching Your Child Self-Control

One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to teach her self-control. Just how important is it that a child learns self-control, and how soon should a parent pursue it with a child? The answer: self-control is critical to success in life, and the sooner a child develops it, the better. Research finds that children who demonstrate self-control by three years of age will become the healthiest, wealthiest, and most successful adults. Conversely, those who demonstrate the least self-control by the same age are more likely to eventually drop out of school, break the law, and struggle financially. One report described it this way: Early self-control has a profound and lasting effect on one’s life in adulthood. A 32-year longitudinal study indicated that possessing self-control in childhood (defined as two to ten years of age) predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal-offending outcomes in adulthood.(1) Moreover, in that study, the effects of children’s self-control were separated from the effects of intelligence, social class, and mistakes that were made when the children were adolescents. Similarly, there is evidence that individuals who have strong self-control in early childhood are more successful in school and are more likely to have successful careers and harmonious family relationships in adulthood. Furthermore, numerous studies have confirmed that self-control at an early age has positive effects on preschool and middle-childhood academic, social, and emotional ability, as well as on the development of conscience. Moreover, self-control can also alleviate behavior, academic, and emotional problems.(2)

Self-control begins early in life as self-regulation, which is the process of regulating one’s reaction to experiences with people, the environment, and various sensory encounters (noises, pain, etc.). Childhood is a fertile period for developing this regulation or impulse control, and parents can play a formative role. Once passed, this opportunity cannot be recovered, and the effort required to retrain is far greater than that to initially train.

Self-regulation starts with healthy nurturing during infancy, where a baby’s needs are promptly met and affection is generously shown, leading to a stable sense of security. It is then, upon this loving foundation, that parents can teach their child to be self-controlled by leading the child. Some of the first challenges come in infancy with protests over naptime, diaper changes, and crawling restrictions. Then for the toddler, impulses needing some degree of control include haphazardly running, curiously touching, boldly grabbing, and erratically screaming. As parents confidently and lovingly lead a child to accept their directives, the child comes to submit his will to theirs and eventually finds reward and security in being self-controlled.

A parent’s control over a child in the early years eventually leads to self-control by the child in later years. Early on, this process produces some degree of conflict between the parent and child, but later on it yields respectful and loving harmony in the relationship. Sadly, parents who seek to overindulge their young child and avoid all conflict will never experience the harmony that could have been theirs during the school-aged and adolescent years.

You may ask, “How does a parent teach self-control?” The answer: by leading your child early on. Teach your child healthy sleep habits, healthy eating habits, and limitations to their blossoming, impulsive behavior. This is accomplished through the discipline process, which will take various forms depending upon your child’s personality and level of maturity.

Excerpted from Loving By Leading pg 36-37

For more on the research behind developing self-control, view Research on Self-Control


  1. Moffitt TE, et al. A Gradient of Childhood Self-control Predicts Health, Wealth, and Public Safety. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2011. 108: 2693–2698.
  2. Tao T, Wang L, Fan C, et al. Development of Self-control in Children Aged 3 to 9 Years: Perspective from a Dual-systems Model. Scientific Reports. 2014; 4:7272. DOI:10.1038/srep07272