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How To Raise Kids Who Make Good Decisions: Expert Tips To Teach Them Self-Control
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  • When we think of the term “self-control” concerning toddlers and preschoolers, the word we often associate it with is “well-behaved.”

    To most of us, a child who can control their urges or reactions does not usually have tantrums, can find ways to express their feelings (both positive and negative), and knows how to do things like sit down, focus, wait and share.

    Self-control is the ability to self-regulate emotions, impulses, and behavior, usually with a long-term goal in mind. Some fine examples of self-control among grown-ups are sticking to our new year’s resolutions or the latest diet. It’s doable, but after a few weeks, or maybe even days, they’re all but forgotten.

    If self-control can be challenging for adults, what more for toddlers?

    We constantly hear how important the first five years of life are in terms of brain development. But what we need to realize is not all parts of the brain are growing at the same rate.

    For example, the prefrontal cortex — where things like planning and decision-making are done — matures at a much slower rate. This is why the ages between 3 to 7 years are when we expect to see children self-regulating with increasing independence.

    But just because gains in self-regulation are noticeable at 3 years old, it doesn’t mean our toddlers cannot be guided to start working on skills that will help them manage themselves. Some parents of infants believe teaching their babies to self-soothe is already a step in the right direction.

    The danger of not helping our children learn self-control is they will grow up with a tendency to give in to impulsive behavior. Or they may avoid situations that may make them feel uncomfortable or unhappy at any cost, leading to bad decision-making, such as cheating, lying, outbursts, or even hurting others.


    Expert tips to teach toddlers self-control

    The opposite is true for children who learn how to self-manage. They grow up into adults who can motivate themselves, make sound decisions, and persevere in tasks that take effort and time.

    What are some things we can do to help our toddlers develop self-control?

    Establish a routine

    With a routine, toddlers can learn about planning. They know what activity is coming next and like the predictability of their day. For example, knowing storytime precedes bedtime gives them something to look forward to.

    When the next routine activity is about to start, it’s a big help for toddlers to get a little bit of a heads up. At school, we help children anticipate a change in the routine by saying, “Two turns of the hourglass, then it’s time to pack away.” Then we turn our toy hourglass over, so they can see how much time is left to play.

    This is a much better alternative than just announcing, “It’s clean up time,” without any warning and expecting the children to just stop whatever they are doing at that very moment.

    Be your child’s coach

    Think about the things that set your child off. Is it hunger, tiredness, or does he just have a meltdown when things don’t go his way?

    Sometimes, your child just needs an "emotion coach," someone to break it down for him, help him manage his needs, explain what will happen, and how he can deal with it.

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    For example, if your toddler hits and cries every time his older sibling wants to borrow a toy, practice what he can say and what the outcomes may be. Teach him hand gestures or words he can use and how long he can keep the toy.

    One of my favorite things to see in our toddler classrooms is the little ones holding a hand up and saying, “Wait,” whenever a classmate tries to take a toy they’re using. Usually, this is enough to get the other child to sit down and watch for a bit or turn around and look for something else.

    But the best part is after a minute, the child usually goes over to his friend and then willingly hands over the coveted toy. This happens because the teachers do a lot of practicing, coaching, and giving positive reinforcement.

    Play waiting games

    One of the easiest and funniest ways to develop self-regulation is simple games where toddlers need to wait a bit like "Freeze Dance" or "Red Light, Green Light." You can also try playing "Peek-a-boo," "Hide and Seek," and singing songs that make them pause every so often.

    One of my favorite songs for toddlers is "Shake and Stop." They shake bells or maracas as we sing but freeze whenever they hear the word stop. Their looks of anticipation as they wait for the shaking to resume are priceless.

    Praise and reward

    Toddlers love positive reinforcement, where the adults are specific about the behavior they are praising. Instead of always saying, “You’re such a good girl.” Try saying, “You are waiting so patiently!” That tells your toddler that you notice how good she is at waiting.


    When rewarding toddlers for good behavior, try to avoid giving store-bought gifts, as it often builds an expectation that goodness equates to big prizes. Instead, give hugs or quality playtime, or bring out their favorite books or snacks.


    Parents need to take the time to reflect on how they manage their children’s outbursts. If you find yourself giving in to tantrums so that they end quickly, it may be time to re-think your strategy.

    Remember, giving in to meltdowns only sends the message that: “You can get what you want when you cry. Even if it annoys me.”

    Reflecting on how we react to how our children behave in stressful situations opens our eyes to whether we need to change what we are doing or stick to our guns. The old adage that parents are the first teachers is more accurate than ever. When your child sees how you manage anger or stress, that is the model they will take to heart more likely than not.

    If you honestly think about it, aren’t there some knee-jerk reactions or saying you have “inherited” from your parents? So now that it’s your turn, what would you like to pass on to your kids?

    My daughter’s favorite warning to her brother is, “Two more minutes,” which she says in the exact same tone as me.

    We can’t expect toddlers to control their feelings and behavior all the time, but we can help them learn how to day by day and step by step. Soon enough, your family will enjoy the fruits of your patience as your child learns how to share, wait, keep calm, and express himself in age-appropriate ways.


    At that moment, when your child gives his first long sigh instead of the usual temper tantrum, you might just feel like the proudest parent in the world.

    Barbara Server-Veloso is known as Teacher Thumby at her preschool, Toddlers Unlimited, and Ms. Thumby at her grade school, Thinkers Unlimited, Alabang. She is also a partner in Spark Discovery Center. Teacher Thumby has a Master’s degree from the University of the Philippines in Family Life and Child Development. She has been teaching since 1993. She is also the mother of Lucas and Verena.

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