Though every child has natural tendencies toward patience or rowdy demands, self-regulation is a learned skill, shares Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, coauthor of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year. “It has to do with being able to step back, weigh the choices and consequences, then make good decisions.” The princess offers the following tips for teaching kids to control and motivate themselves:
Say no to kiddie extortion
Picture this: Your three-year-old comes to you and says, “Mom, I want some-a dose cookies ova dere.” The problem is, it’s almost bedtime, and the last thing you want is your daughter on a sugar high. You start to shake your head, and it starts: The trembling lip. The flushed cheeks. The watering eyes. You’re tempted to give in and hand over the cookie now before the crying or—heaven forbid—full-out hysterics begin. Don’t—be strong!
“Don’t cave in to whiny demands, and don’t offer a reward for a measly effort at self-control. This is what I call kiddie extortion. Parents are held ransom by a fitful child until they, too, want to scream. It’s a great temptation to give them anything they want to stop the unwanted behavior. However, a better choice is to remove your child from the situation and give her some time alone to reflect and calm down. Tell her to take deep breaths. Once she has calmed down, let her know how you expect her to behave and give her another chance to succeed.”
Set reasonable expectations and consequences
Think through what’s achievable while considering his or her age. Once you have decided on goals, determine the consequences when expectations aren’t met and communicate those to your kids. “When children understand what behaviors are expected of them, they are more likely to do them,” reminds Ivana. “Simple lessons on delayed gratification might include cleaning their rooms before getting TV time or, for older kids, no loans when it comes to their allowance. Whatever you decide, be consistent.”
Not all rewards are objects
At times, it may seem like your kids are laser-focused on getting “stuff” as rewards. Remember, though, that even if they don’t verbalize it, your children greatly value the love, approval, and time you have to give! Play and praise!
Banish the word “failure”
If your child is putting forth effort but getting discouraged on a project, give him a hug and encourage him to keep trying. If you see that he isn’t up to the task of finding the solution or completing the proposed project, gently suggest that he stop, take a breather, and try something else. “One of the most crucial things in helping your kids learn the pleasure of effort is letting them know that there are many solutions to any situation,” Pignatelli says. There is no such word as ‘failure’ unless you decide to give up,” she adds.
Teach them to give and take through play
Pignatelli’s sister Marisa invented a game called Jellybean Hide & Seek to teach Ivana’s two toddlers the rewards of both effort and sharing. “Close your eyes, and count to ten,” she told them, while she hid groups of two jellybeans around the house. Each time either one of the children found the two jellybeans, the treats were shared. Thus, the success of one child became the success of the other—a fun lesson in the value of teamwork and sharing.
Let them make decisions
Yes, parents usually know best, and dictating the ‘right’ behavior can often save time and tears, but sooner or later, your kids will need to navigate life without you calling the shots and good decision-making takes practice. Let your children know you have confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and very often, they will.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
It’s a fact of life that kids often won’t absorb new behaviors the first, third, or even tenth time you offer instruction. That’s why it’s so important to repeat what you’d like them to do and why. “You may not see any return for a while,” Ivana points out. The key is sticking with it.
Be a good example
“Do as I say, not as I do” has never been (and never will be) a valid parenting strategy. To put it simply, kids learn the bulk of their behaviors, habits, and attitudes from watching you. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re not invalidating your instructions with your actions. When you do make a mistake, be sure to acknowledge it to your children. I also suggest teaming up with them to practice self-control for both of you. For instance, you might say, ‘I know you want to go see the movie that just came out—I’d like to go with you! If you can help me pick up all your toys and put them away tonight while I clean-up the bathroom, we can go to the theater tomorrow.’
“At the end of the day, remember that each child is different and develops at a unique rate,” Ivana concludes. “Don’t use your brother’s kids, the students in your son’s preschool class, or his sister as a measuring stick for success or failure. Just be persistent and consistent, and one day, you’ll be impressed by just how much self-control and persistence your child is displaying.” #