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Teaching Self-Control to Young Children - Part 3: Speech - Cheryl Hernández

Teaching Self-Control to Young Children – Part 3: Speech


Cheryl Hernández, homeschool mom of 9, gives 7 tips on how to teach the virtue of self-control to young children. Part 3 of this series explores speech.

So far, we have looked at two ways to teach self-control in young children: the areas of Boundaries and Sleeping. In Part 3, we will explore the area of speech.

A self-controlled person has mastery over his speech – as a rule, he does not use coarse language or a loud, obtrusive voice, nor does he interrupt and speak over others. In addition, he is charitable in the words he uses and the way he uses them (articulation). So, how can we teach this to very young children?

1. A self-controlled child does not interrupt

A way to begin early is by teaching children not to interrupt. If you are speaking with another person, a very young child can be taught to walk up to you quietly, put his hand on your arm, and wait until you have a break in the conversation.

It is impressive to watch when a child needs to speak with the parent, and the parent recognizes this by excusing him or herself from the conversation at a convenient point to address the child. The child learns to patiently wait, doing so in a respectful, mannerly way, confident the parent will soon attend to his needs.

This can even be practiced while reading a book with your child on your lap. Children often want to talk about everything on each page, pointing out things in the picture. You can teach them to wait until you are finished reading the page before asking any questions.

2. A self-controlled child is respectful in the volume of her speech

Begin early to teach an “inside voice” with your children – yelling and screaming inside the home, and dominating conversations with a loud voice, do not exhibit self-control. St. Ambrose said, “Let no one offend by too loud a voice.” Children can learn to adjust their voices when they walk through the door.

By insisting on it from an early age, a child will soon gain the self-control to speak quietly inside. “Outside voices” generally don’t mean uncontrolled screaming, either – this would not be respectful of neighbors.

3. A self-controlled child speaks directly to someone, looking at their eyes

A small child who yells from another room is serving himself, rather than exhibiting the self-control it takes to walk up to mom, get her attention, and look her in the eyes before speaking. The best way to teach this is not to do it yourself. Call the child to come to you; once he is in front of you, you can teach him to look at your eyes when you speak and respond, “Yes, Mommy” or “Yes, Daddy.”

Besides teaching him self-control, you are having him acknowledge that he has heard you and have given him the impetus to obey. Another way to teach this is to simply not respond when your child yells across the room – he might think you are hard of hearing, but he will be learning self-control.

4. A self-controlled child’s speech is courteous and kind, never coarse or vulgar

Do not allow children to speak unkindly. The Golden Rule states, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi had the excellent rule of “never to utter in their absence what you would not say in their presence.”

It is important to teach our children this, and more importantly, to exhibit the self-control of our own speech by being a good example in this area. A good parenting precept to remember is “More is caught than taught”.

Be careful with gossip in your household. This exhibits a lack of self-control, but more importantly, a lack of charity. When a young child makes fun of someone, stop her. A self-controlled person does not always say whatever comes to mind. She pauses before she speaks and looks for words that will glorify God.

A young person must be reminded of this every time she speaks in a negative manner about another person. And once again, if she is not allowed to gossip when she is very young (and this can begin very young), then she will learn the self-control not to gossip when she is older.

Choosing charitable words is important at the dinner table. Saying, “Yuck, this is gross” about the casserole can be turned into “This isn’t my favorite”. Once a child sticks out her tongue and makes a negative comment about the food given to her, correct her on what she should say.

Once again, if you do this as she is just learning to talk, your child will grow up with self-control of her speech, so she thinks twice before making negative comments about the food. Also, you will be teaching her gratitude, another important virtue.

5. A self-controlled child does not whine or complain

If you do not permit or listen to whining in a toddler, you will most likely not have an older child or teenager who complains. Children often whine or complain because it works (they get what they want).

If you make their complaining counterproductive, it simply won’t become a habit. A small child can be removed from your presence and placed in his crib or playpen in another room, calmly saying to him, “No whining”.

Because it helps to instruct in what he should do, tell him, “When you’re happy, you can come back”. Then follow through – wait until he has calmed down before he may come back to join the rest of the family.

Young children learn quickly that whining and complaining get them nowhere – except to not get what they are whining for and instead spend time by themselves as they rethink their attitude.

When an older child complains, it becomes infectious amongst the rest of the family. You can calmly tell him to remove himself to his room until he can regroup and join the rest of the family with a good attitude.

As with all child training, if you invest the time to teach your child good, virtuous behavior from the beginning (right when they begin talking!), you will not have to retrain the bad behavior that will invariably happen.

Train, don’t retrain!

6. A self-controlled person habitually uses words like “please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”

This is so easy and important to teach at an early age! “Please” and “thank you” should be among a child’s first words. One simple way to teach this is when your child points to a toy or book out of her reach, ask her to say “please”. Before you give it to her, ask her to say “thank you”.

Then, and only then, release the toy. Again, it takes practice and patience, but a child will learn very early to use these important words. Self-control of speech is not reserved for outside the home. Make your home a place of courteous speech and require good speech manners between siblings and certainly to parents.

7. A self-controlled child speaks articulately

As your child gets older, there are other ways to help him develop self-control in his speech. Improper speech habits will invariably occur, such as peppering sentences with the word “like”, using object pronouns in the place of subject pronouns (“Dad and me went fishing”) or skipping over consonants (what I call “lazy speech”: saying “See-un” instead of pronouncing the middle consonant “t” in Seton).

When one of my children got into the habit of saying “like” constantly in every sentence – and repeated corrections were not heeded – I told her if she liked the word so very much, then I would keep track of every time she used the word improperly (which meant literally stopping her in mid-sentence, going to the dry erase board and writing a tally mark). When she reached 10 times in a day, she would have to write the word “like” 100 times.

By consistently bringing it to her attention, she would stop mid-way in a sentence and start over. It took no more than a couple of days to rid her of the habit. Having the self-control to speak articulately is not only useful in being understood, but it is considerate and polite to whom one is speaking.

Remember that the purpose of teaching self-control in any area, including speech, is to develop virtue in our children – something we are called to do while they are in our care. Teaching the virtue of self-control in our children takes time and patience – but growing in holiness is certainly worth it!

In Part 4 of Teaching Self-Control to Young Children, we will look at ways we can teach this virtue while Eating.

About Cheryl Hernández

Cheryl Hernández
Cheryl Hernandez and her husband live in Kentucky, and have homeschooled their nine children for 28 years using the Seton curriculum. Born in California and raised in Europe, Cheryl has a BFA in Graphic Design and is a convert to our wonderful Catholic Faith.

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