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Teaching Self-Control to Young Children - Part 1: Boundaries - Cheryl Hernández

Teaching Self-Control to Young Children – Part 1: Boundaries


Cheryl Hernández, a homeschool mom of 9, gives tips on how to teach the virtue of self-control to young children. Part 1 of this series explores boundaries.

1. What is self-control and why is it important?

Merriam-Webster defines self-control as “the ability to control oneself, in particular, one’s emotions and desires…especially in difficult situations.”

It is the ability to, at will, say no to our passions, appetites, and laziness. Self-control comes through training and discipline and a constant working toward strengthening our will. Our children, as they grow older and into adulthood, will face many temptations – some small and some very big.

Helping them to learn to deny themselves, to say no when everyone else is saying yes, is critical.

Like most of you, I struggle to teach this to my children. I don’t have all the answers, but after 20 years of homeschooling our 9 children and from talking to many successful families, I would love to share with you some tips that have helped our family.

This article series will have five parts, so we can explore, in some detail, each area of teaching self-control in young children: boundaries, sleeping, speech, eating, and sitting still.

2. Setting Boundaries

To set a boundary means to limit a child’s freedom of movement, environment, choices, and speech. This is done for health, safety, and moral reasons. A child given more freedom than he can handle (too few boundaries) will get into trouble.

Think of parenting a child as an inverted triangle. The small point of the triangle at the bottom represents the tight boundaries necessary for very young children.

As a child grows, gains knowledge, and learns responsibility (the triangle gets wider), the boundaries are expanded, and he gains more privileges. Finally, he gets to the point of no longer depending upon parent-directed boundaries.

Hopefully, your child has grown into a man or woman, who possesses the virtue of self-control.

3. Freedom within Boundaries

Children often have a love/hate relationship with boundaries.

They love them because of the security and familiarity they provide, but dislike them because they are simply that – a boundary. Many children grow up with few boundaries and learn to have little respect for authority or for what does not belong to them.

I once heard an explanation of “freedom within boundaries” that has stuck with me. Imagine two families waiting in line at an amusement park.

One child, who has not been taught self-control within boundaries, is being firmly grasped by the hand by his dad, wiggling and whining, wanting to be set free. The father knows the boy will take off if he lets go, so he has him in a vise grip – both are miserable.

The other child, taught from an early age to respect boundaries, stands quietly next to his parents. He asks if he could go sit down on a bench twenty feet away from where the parents are standing in line.

The parents, knowing the boy will stay there and come immediately when called, give him permission to do so – and the boy happily goes off. Who has more freedom? The boy not taught boundaries or the boy who has?

But where do we teach this self-control through boundaries?

4. Playpen – a first boundary

One great way to introduce boundaries to a very young child is to give her one – the playpen!

The playpen doubles as a portable bed, provides a safe environment for the child while Mom puts away groceries or gets dinner started, and is a wonderful way to teach self-control. By putting your baby in the playpen at a scheduled time for a set amount of time each day, she learns to play by herself with the toys given.

Instead of dumping a bunch of toys in there, choose 2 or 3 simple toys (not electronics!) and allow your child to explore these for a set period of time. Creativity is a product of boundaries – not freedom.

Within boundaries, a child becomes innovative and creative. Instead of giving in when she gets “bored” and demands another toy, allow her time to explore each toy to its fullest. You will be surprised what she comes up with!

Putting the playpen in a hall where she can still see you, but can concentrate on her toys often helps, initially. Later, you may want to move the playpen to a separate room, so she won’t be distracted.

Remember, you are teaching her the self-control to play by herself, focus for a certain amount of time on the toys given, and in the process, discover new and creative ways to play with them. Set the timer so she learns to wait for the ring – at first, she will want to come out immediately, but allow her time to get used to it.

Start small when the children are small – 15 minutes twice a day. Increase the time as they get older (around 18 months) to an hour once a day.

5. Room time

Once your child is around 18 – 20 months, he can transition from playpen time to room time. You might say, “But my child loves to play in his room – no problem!”

But does he love to play in his room when you tell him to? And does he stay there, playing happily, for the time you have said? That’s the self-control you want to teach him.

So, room time means, at a scheduled time each day, the child plays with a (very) few toys in his room by himself. At first, it may mean you put up a little gate, so he understands he needs to stay in his room.

Later, you will take down the gate and expect him to stay until the timer goes off. This is an excellent time to put on some fun music or audio stories. You will be surprised how he will memorize every verse of the songs or be able to retell the stories on the CD.

Areas of self-control during room time include not pulling off every toy on the shelf (playing only with what you have put down for him), staying in the room until the timer goes off, and picking up the toys neatly when done.

For those of you with several children, room time is an invaluable tool. Children need time to themselves in the day, away from other siblings, to learn to play, to create, to focus.

6. Baby Proofing to the Extreme

There is an argument to be made that we over-babyproof our homes to where we often eliminate the need for teaching self-control to our young children.

We put locks on our cabinets, stove, and every door. We put plants high out of reach, clear off the coffee table, and pad every sharp corner.

Simply, everything is inaccessible to the child, eliminating the need to teach boundaries, or simply, the word “No.”

Yes, this makes life at home smoother – for a time – but what happens when your child figures out how to climb and reach those items you put up high? Or when you go to visit a friend at her home, which is not baby-proofed, or want to go shopping?

And what happens when your child toddles over to your very expensive phone or laptop (or box of matches) that you forgot to put out of reach?

A child can and should learn from an early age the difference between her things and those she may not touch – a first boundary.

When she is very young, rather than remove every forbidden item out of reach (other than obvious, dangerous items) teach her the difference between her things and “no touch” things (plants, books on the coffee table, or anything else that is off-limits).

Give her a basket in the living room with her toys or books, perhaps, another basket in the kitchen. Every time she reaches for a “no-touch” item, direct her to her basket. It will take repeated efforts, but a child can easily learn to touch only what belongs to her (and know the difference).

More than once, I have seen a child visit a home, reach for something on the coffee table, pull her hand back, and turn to look for her own toy – without being told. This child is taught the self-control to think before touching something.

In our home, cabinets were simply off-limits for young children for any reason – including touching them. Same for the stove. We said a firm “No” when the child was reaching for the cabinet door – not even allowing her to touch it – picked her up and redirected her to the toy basket.

Make your “no” a “no” and follow through. Teaching our children to obey is a commandment from God. The perseverance required and time invested from the beginning pays off in dividends later, when your child has developed the self-control to know the difference between her things and those that are not.

7. Let’s Go Shopping!

Do you enjoy grocery shopping with your child? Taking him to the store to buy new clothes? Many parents would say no. We have all seen children in stores running up and down, rearranging the food items on the shelf, or playing hide & seek in the racks of clothing.

Mom gets little actual shopping done and is more than a little frazzled when she finally gets to the check-out counter, only to find Junior…. missing! There is a better way, and it involves teaching your child self-control.

Before entering the store, instruct your child he is to keep his hands down and not touch anything. If we were walking through a small antique store or gift shop with lots of breakable items, I would ask my child to fold his hands in front of him.

When we were in a grocery store, the children held onto the side of the cart – one on each side if I had two with me. This is not just a cute trick but a necessity. If you have a baby in the cart or in a sling, and two small children walking, you need them to stay close to you.

For their safety, when you walk through the parking lot to the car, they need to have the self-control to hold on tight until you unlock the car door. This is best taught early, as soon as they can walk. An excellent parenting precept is train, don’t retrain! Every time the child takes his hand off the cart, stop, instruct, and place it back on.

As with all child training, repeated instruction is necessary and consistent consequences must be given for disobedience. Consistency by the parent is far more important than the consequences.

After a while, he will automatically grab hold of the cart – ready to go shopping!

8. Life Saving

Teaching your child the self-control to respect boundaries may even save her life. Think of children who run out into the street, not bothering to look for cars, or who get into the medicine cabinet and open bottles, or who toddle over to the pocket knife big brother has left lying on the table. These children never experienced boundaries that would lead them to gain self-control, and sometimes, it leads to tragic consequences.

Teach boundaries to young children, keeping them tight when they are small, widening them as they grow and gain responsibility.

As responsible citizens and Catholics, we must obey the teachings of the Church and all civil laws that do not contradict those teachings. Our children must be obedient to parental authority, including any authority we have put over them.

Remember, true freedom (and peace) comes from obedience to the boundaries given. Ultimately, the reason to work on increasing our self-control and helping our young children to do the same is to grow closer to God.

In Part 2 of Teaching Self-Control to Young Children, we will explore ways to teach self-control through Sleeping.

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