The secret to teaching kids self control

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity Prayer

Everywhere I look I am reminded about control. Whether it’s a Peloton instructor, a podcast about physical and mental health, or a book I’m reading, the issue of control feels omnipresent. Which naturally has me thinking about the issue of control and children.

Admittedly, I used to try to control my kids. It’s been a journey to try and shift my own perspective and apply the Serenity Prayer both in the classroom and with my own kids. Accept the things I cannot change. That’s a tough one. However, fighting for control of things I cannot change is consistently a losing battle. Which is part of what has helped me to realize that trying to control my children was not, in fact, my goal.

Rethinking Power and Control

Dr. Edtih Eger talks about control and power in her book, The Gift. She says, “The best way to let go of the need for control is to become powerful. Power has nothing to do with brawn or domination. It means you have the strength to respond instead of react, to take charge of your life, to have total ownership of your choices. You are powerful because you’re not giving your power away.” When she says it like that, it makes complete sense. We are essentially handing over our power to our kids when we keep vying for control of their decisions. I have a hard enough time with my own self control. Why should I be trying to hijack my kids’ ability to control themselves? What message is this inadvertently sending them?

Why do we feel so threatened?

I think a big challenge to raising children is dealing with the perceived feeling of threat. When Pick up your toys is met with NO, feelings of threat, anxiety, and annoyance are often lurking nearby. What is my next move? Why do I feel like there is a lion in my house and my entire body is entering fight or flight mode? For me, it’s not just a mental reaction. It’s physical and emotional as well. If I don’t have a strong handle on myself in moments like this, things can spiral pretty quickly. I can be seriously unpleasant to be around.

When I neglect myself, hearing that NO can immediately send me into flight or fight mode. I am quick to say things I don’t want to be saying, give off a nasty energy, and become a version of myself I really don’t enjoy. I know my children don’t enjoy this version of me either. Why does that one NO trigger so much in us? For me it always comes back to Victor Frankl (In between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.) and the Serenity Prayer.

I can’t control when my kids say NO. I can’t control what comes out of their mouth, make them apologize, sleep, or eat what I serve for dinner. Reminding myself of this and focusing on controlling myself have been the most liberating and challenging exercises I have attempted. I went from trying to make my kids do what I asked them, to accepting that I can’t make them do anything. This does not mean the inmates are running the asylum. It is my job to hold boundaries, keep expectations high, and enforce consequences when necessary. However, instead of leading from a place of consequence, my goal is to lead from a place of self control.

Self control is not just for kids

It hit me when thinking about my kids’ lack of self control that I lack self control, as well myself. I was expecting my three and four year olds to have better self control than me. YOU can’t hit or yell when you’re upset but I can when I’m upset? The ole’ pot calling the kettle black. Every week my words and actions remind me that I am always modeling for my kids, whether I intend to or not. If I scream when I’m overwhelmed or things aren’t going my way, I am modeling that for my kids. If I act like a fool when I don’t get what I want, how could I possibly expect my kids to “use their words” and act calmly when they don’t get what they want?

With Easter this past weekend, we were talking a lot about Jesus. And I used it as an opportunity to remind my kids that other than Jesus, we all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn’t and act in ways that are not safe or kind to ourselves and others. I highlight for them that I am just as human as they are and working just as hard they are to exhibit self control.

Name Calling

Keener is very much four, almost five. He is in an exaggeration stage and trying out all kinds of new phrases to see where they get him. I hate you. Grace is stupid. Fun times at four. When I neglect myself those phrases can send me over the top pretty quickly. Stimulus, response — boom — no space! I respond in a way that shows I am absolutely threatened. And he absolutely knows this. He has me right where he wants me. I can see his little mind thinking Sweet. All I have to do is use the word stupid and mom gets totally spun out. Easy enough!

Instead, I fight for that space. The tiny little space between stimulus and response where I can remind myself that I do, in fact, have the power to choose my response. Instead of overreacting, I try and remind him that feeling angry is absolutely okay. Using unkind words is not. (I also, in the back of my mind, remind myself that I am always modeling… What have I been saying in his ear shot when someone or something makes me angry?)

Why self love is essential

If we want any chance at finding that space, we must engage in self love. We must focus on people and activities that empower us, not deplete us. We must prioritize sleep, and move our bodies and spend time outside. I used to think it was selfish to focus on my own needs, however, I’ve come to realize it’s actually selfish to ignore myself. Then, everyone suffers. If I want my kids to have self control, I must model it myself. The only way I can have self control is to practice self love. It’s not a one size fits all or a destination. It’s lots of little choices every single day. It’s a willingness to try new things. It’s a commitment to myself and my kids. And it’s taking responsibility for my own behavior — constantly reminding myself that my self control is not tied to my kids’ lack of self control.

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