In Parenting

The Importance of Learning Self Control

Everyone knows a bully. It could be that kid who stole your lunch in third grade. It could be someone you stood up to when they were beating up your friend. It might have even been a past version of yourself. Since you know a bully, you also know how emotionally and physically harmful bullying can be.

  • According to studies conducted by Yale, bullying victims “are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims”.
  • Additionally, a British study “found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.”

So what can be done to prevent bullying in the first place? This question has arisen a big deal of curiosity from psychologists and sociologists. One theory, developed by Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson, attempts to describe the effect that parenting has on how a child develops. By studying this theory, parents can avoid the common pitfalls of parenting and learn how to set a good example.

The Self Control Theory

Hirschi and Gottfredson set out to research and understand the causes for delinquency and crime, by studying different factors impacting the growth of children. In a study by Carter Hay, a Washington State University researcher, Hirschi and Gottfredson are quoted:

“All human conduct can be understood as the self-interested pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.” They perceive crime as a universally desirable way of pursuing self-interest because it provides “immediate, easy, and short-term pleasure.” Using this as the base of their studies, they delved into the idea of self control.

As Hay states, “this theory asks not what causes crime, but rather, what constrains it? For Gottfredson and Hirschi, the answer is self control.” The self control theory, then, is about understanding the ability to control one’s self relates to delinquent behavior, such as bullying or crime.

What It Means to Have Self Control

Catrine Finkenauer, Rutger C. M. E. Engels, and Roy F. Baumeister state that “In scientific terms, self control refers to a person’s capacity to override and inhibit socially unacceptable and undesirable impulses and to alter and regulate one’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions.”

Francis T. Cullen, James D. Unnever, John Paul Wright, and Kevin M. Beaver also sought to define self control.“It is a form of personal capital: the ability to resist immediate, easy gratifications that produce short term benefits but long term social failure.”

So, the ability to control oneself is the capacity to regulate one’s own behavior. However, it also seems to imply that the person is thinking ahead. This means considering consequences, and measuring the effects that their actions will have on others.

Low Self Control and its Effects

By extension, it makes sense that the lack of this self control is what leads to misbehavior, bullying, crime, and delinquency; or at least is one of its largest contributing factors. The necessity of impulse control is most evident when we analyze the behaviors of those who lack it. According to Hay, people with lack of personal control will demonstrate the following traits:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Preference of easy tasks to more complicated ones
  • Tendency for seeking out risks
  • Preference of any physical activity to any mental or cognitive one
  • Self centeredness
  • Insensitivity to the needs of others
  • Swiftness to lose temper

Additionally, he states that “It is also argued that people lacking self control tend to pursue immediate pleasures that are not criminal: they will tend to smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble, have children out of wedlock, and engage in illicit sex. Thus, this is not just a theory of crime, but also of deviance, broadly defined to include such problems as marital and employment instability, poor health maintenance, drug and alcohol addiction, and involvement in accidents.”

It is obvious that a lack of self control can lead to delinquency and other negative and destructive behaviors. So how does one develop it?

The Role of the Parents

The theory, supported by many different studies, shows that when parents teach their children how to have self control from an early age, they demonstrate less negative behavior. True, most parents care deeply about their child, but this does not mean that a child who receives care will develop self control.

Francis T. Cullen, James D. Unnever, John Paul Wright, and Kevin M. Beaver say, “Not all parents, however, care equally about their children. This lack of parental attachment to one’s child is thus an initial source of variation in self control. Caring for a child, however, does not ensure that parents will do their job effectively . . . caring about your child matters only to the extent that it is a motivator to parents to do what really matters: exercising direct social control over their child. Good parental managers of children instill self control; poor parental managers do not.”

Finkenauer et al give some advice about good parental management:

“If parental efforts affect children directly, then the ways in which they try to manage their children’s behavior should have an immediate impact on children’s adjustment, especially among young adolescents.”

Additionally, they say that the following “combination of parenting behaviors seems be adaptive in that it reduces both major types of adolescent behavior problems”:

  • Parental support (e.g. giving encouragement in the face of failures)
  • Strict control (e.g. implementing solid rules)
  • Monitoring of children’s activities (e.g. keeping an eye on what they are doing)
  • Knowledge about children’s whereabouts and activities

Thus, it appears that a combination of sincere caring and firm rules is the key to developing good self control in children. However, it can be easy to make common mistakes in this process.

Common Pitfalls to Maintaining Good Self Control in a Child

As human beings, we are imperfect and make mistakes. However, this does not mean that we have to continue in this erroneous practice. The first step to improving is knowing where you went wrong along the way. When attempting to raise a child to have good self control, there are many possible pitfalls. Erika Tyner Allen, JD, Ph.D., has a list of ten of the most common of them (part one, part two), from which the following were drawn.

Not Realizing the Impact that the Example of the Parent Has on the Child

Since a child has no experience to begin with, he or she must learn by following the examples of those around them. Since parents are such a large part of the life of a child, they will also be one of the prime examples from which a child will take behavioral cues.

  • Allen says that “You have every kind of superior power over your children—physical strength, mental prowess, and financial control. Any way that you use these things yourself without kindness and empathy creates a powerful example that you may well spend a lifetime overcoming.”

Unknowingly Providing Encouragement to Bullying Behavior

Children learn by example, and often we can provide them with a bad example without realizing it.

  • “In so many ways we convey to our kids that being in charge is good and that being well liked is an asset. Yet, too often we fail to communicate that what we really want is for our child to exhibit the positive qualities that earn him or her that esteem. Power or popularity at all costs, or as the end in itself, is a framework that makes all sorts of inappropriate behavior okay, including bullying.”
  • Additionally, “Never provide an appreciative audience for bullying at home. Have you ever been with another family when one sibling makes a sarcastic dig at the other and the parents laugh? Too often, bullying at home is written off by parents as ‘sibling rivalry’ or ‘the way brothers or sisters are,’ and thus left unaddressed.”

You must always be careful to do your best to set a good example for your children to follow, as they learn by watching more than anything else.

Failing to Teach Anger Management to Children

Often times, children do not know how to deal with anger, as it may be a new and confusing emotion for them. If parents do not help their children understand and learn control over anger, then the child may turn to more destructive relief methods.

  • Allen provides some insight here. “If you have ever yelled at your kids because you were mad at your spouse, you can appreciate that bullying is sometimes a misplaced response to anger. Do your kids know what makes them angry or even when they are feeling angry?”
  • She also offers some excellent advice. “Parents too often make anger a ‘bad’ emotion—one that ‘good’ kids should never feel or at least learn to quell. But anger is a healthy emotion that plays a role alongside the more well liked feelings of, say, happiness and pride. Yet anger has to be okay, and expressing it has to be okay. Have you demonstrated to your kids how one can simply say to someone else, ‘What you did made me angry. Here’s why …’? Do you make it acceptable for your kids to say similar things? Without this ability to address issues head-on, anger can become displaced and foster bullying behavior.”

Failing to Reward Good Behavior and Empathy

Another reason many children may not choose to emulate good behavior is where they receive attention. When a child is bad, the parent will usually present them attention (perhaps angrily). However, when a child does behave in a good way, parents do not always reinforce that behavior.

  • Allen also addresses this. “In many ways, empathy and kindness are the opposites of bullying. As a starting point, have your children heard you use those words? Could they define them? When a child—your own or another—demonstrates empathy or kindness, it is worth calling it out pointblank. “I saw you ask that younger child to play with you and your friends, and that was really kind. I was proud that you did that.”

The role of the parent is indispensable

To sum up, children will learn self control through the effective behavior and influence of their parents, which will then prepare them to resist the urge to participate in negative or destructive behavior. It is imperative that you teach your children how to control themselves, and for you to set a positive example that they can follow.

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