This is the last in the series of brief articles focusing on virtues we all actively seek to teach our children. I’ve saved for last a virtue some claim may be the most important, as all other virtues may be subservient to it. Without it, we find it difficult to exercise the other virtues. Of course, I’m referring to self-control. Paul lists self-control as the last in his list of nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), and specifically targets young men to seek self-control in Titus 2:6. We need it to be faithful in prayer (1 Peter 4:7), and the Bible stipulates it as a requirement for those serving as elders (1 Timothy 3:2).
Children rarely display self-control without being explicitly trained to do so. Children tend to display impetuous and impatient behavior, demanding what they want when they want it. If the impulsive and selfish disposition is not honed when children are young, it can spiral out of control as they age. A lack of self-control can appear to be cute from a five-year-old, but isn’t so cute when the same lack of self-control rears its ugly head at age sixteen. A lack of self-control manifests itself in numerous symptomatic sins: anger, laziness, jealousy, a harsh spirit, unkind words. So how can we train our children to be self-controlled? Here are some ideas:
- Don’t allow for small compromises when children are young – Self-control is best shaped by daily practices and habits. Allowing temper tantrums without a consequence teaches children that it’s OK to submit to their negative feelings. Be watchful of the words they use to friends (do they lash out in anger or frustration?). Small acts of selfishness such as taking a toy from a sibling serve as good opportunities to train through the importance of self-restraint.
- Seek intentional – and even artificial ways – to train self-control – Many families have developed simple ways to train self-control when their children are very young. Ideas include sitting still during a family worship time. Consider using a timer and add a few minutes over time, starting at five minutes with the goal of perhaps twenty. Have young children sit through part of the church service, practicing and learning how to be quiet and respectful (this is not intended to disparage children’s church or Sunday school).
- Be mindful of how children are spending their time – Many studies have shown that too much time with video games or TV does little to implant self-control, and instead promotes impetuousness and impulsivity. Have children read for 20 minutes before they are allowed to play a video game or watch TV. Don’t allow young children to play video games in the car, and instead expect them to talk and interact (road trips can be the fun exception). Teach them to exercise appropriate choices at the dinner table or when it comes time for dessert. Don’t mistake the meaning here: video games, TV, and dessert are not mortal enemies, but all are best imbibed through an intentional approach to teaching good habits.
- Expect children to act as good stewards of their possessions – While we don’t want to encourage materialism or idolatry, children who are reckless with their things reflect and perpetuate a lack of self-restraint, not to mention poor stewardship. Expect children to exercise self-control by keeping their room clean, making their bed, and caring for the possessions God has given them.
These are not hard-and-fast rules; rather, some ways to help our children grow in virtue. We all desire our children to practice self-control as they seek to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. We have all learned the hard way that the spirit is often willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). Training our boys and girls, our young men and women, to faithfully practice self-control sets them up for lives of faithfulness, and will – God be praised – save them from many of the pains we’ve experienced as a result of our own lack of self-control.