Help Along the Way: Self Control

[1] It may be noted; I have a long way to go towards self-control. As I child I loved meringue. My mother makes the best chocolate meringue pie in the free world. For my tenth birthday all I wanted was a meringue pie, hold the chocolate. (I have sense repented from this clearly heretical ideology.)

Despite my best intentions when inviting my friends over for a birthday sleep over; I didn’t share one piece with them. I ate the whole thing. I did run into reality as I was running to the bathroom to begin my now hearty aversion to meringue.

Self- control is a tough pre-sale.

Paul reminds us in Galatians that self-control is evidence of the work of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-23) We are encouraged to seek self- control, to “make every effort.” (2 Peter 1: 5-6) A further insight is offered to Timothy that a lack of self-control is connected to fear. (2 Tim. 1:17)

Self- control is in part a measure of brain development. Psychology Today states that self-control (also called willpower) is the “ability to subdue our impulses,” and is primarily a function of our prefrontal cortex. This section of the brain begins to develop in childhood. There is less development during adolescents (big shocker there) but comes back into play during early adulthood.  

Two processes are occurring in childhood: the process of discovering the self and the process of learning to control or govern the self.

Every child has been given a self by God. God has gifted them with a will of their own. God has given them a kingdom or queendom.[2]

In the Great Courses series, lecture one, Dr. Vishton unpacks and discusses several studies around self-control and childhood. He references the marshmallow test and explains how the human ability to control the self is forming in childhood and that forming extends for good or ill into adulthood. Dr. Vishton goes on to offer well-researched tips for developing a child’s self- control.

The first process is of course helping children to develop a self. Or in Dallas Willard speak it is to help a child learn that they have a will and further to learn the effective range of that will.

Dr. Vishton goes to great lengths to encourage caretakers of babies to make sure they have plenty of “tummy time.” Not only does bodily stimulus develop the muscles of the child, it develops the mind of the child. Tummy time- is what it sounds like, period of time when you place babies on their tummies. Caregivers encourage and interact with the child, which also increases the neurological emotional connections that help to form the child’s picture of God.

Motor development and cognitive development go hand in hand. The various aspects of the person (spirit, body, mind, emotions) are generally in sync in children. So when babies have the chance to move their bodies (i.e. tummy time) their minds grow too. Turns out all those times I had my children in my lap at the table, dropping luke-warm food on their little bald heads, is why they are so darn smart today.

The research showing the connection between body and cognitive development reminds us that the spirit of the child is also linked. When we teach children to pray, we need to be sure we are including all aspects: spirit, body, mind, and emotions. When we emotionally connect with children we are helping to shape what they believe about God.

Helping little ones fold their hands when they pray, encouraging them to dance during worship, (Yes, I said it.) acknowledging that God sees their tears when they cry are all ways to incorporate their natural wiring into spiritual formation. Each of these can help children to discover themselves and to discover their environment. It helps them to define their kingdom/queendom and discover a God who loves them very much.

The second process is to learn to govern the self. That seems to be the lesson of adulthood too. (Says the women hiding Easter candy in her desk.) One particular study Dr. Vishton highlights centers on the effects of Tae Kwon Do (TKD) on children’s ability to self-monitor, self regulate and even their self-intention. The study reports that the benefits were largest for children in grades 3-5.

TKD offers children the opportunity to regularly practice awareness of others, mentally challenging bodily tasks, and intense concentration- all of which train a child for self- control. In the study teachers reported that the kids who practiced TKD behaved better during the day and scored higher on math tests. It seems that for older children too, the body is connected to the mind.

Cultivating Self Control:

·      For babies, 60-90 minutes on their tummies where they can experience their own bodies and their environment. (Keeping in mind that babies should not be put to sleep on their tummies. Tummy time is playtime with a caregiver.)

·      For babies, time being held and played with for 60-90 minutes.

·      Pray blessings on babies aloud while making the sign of the cross or something similar involving their bodies.

·      Get involved in TKD or some other activity that includes mentally challenging bodily tasks, awareness of others, and intense concentration.

·      Get the bodies of children involved in Scripture. Invite the children to role-play certain parts of the story of Jesus. Invite them to dance to a Psalm 131 or 100, or Pray Psalm 23 with their bodies.

·      Help children to become aware of the 4 Rs: Rather than react, reflect and respond. (The best way to teach them the 4 Rs, is to live them yourself. Even walking them through your own process aloud as you go through it.)

Are there others you would add to this list? How have these worked for you? 

We are learning together, Moms and Dads, Grands and BigMamas, Tias and Tios, Friends, and Teachers.   


[1] If you are just now tuning into this blog series, it is a conversation with the Great Courses series, Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Peter M. Vishton.

[2] For a reflection on the gift of kingdom, check out the blog “Unwrapping the Gift of Kingdom.