"Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life." - Steven Pinker
"You frequently mention "setting limits" and I am wondering if you can elaborate. I feel like I am not good at setting limits and my children probably feel like I am unpredictable with what I allow and what sets me off." -- Aurora
does Aurora's question about setting limits have to do with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's opinion on self-control? Our children learn self-control
from the limits we set. But -- and this is critical -- only if we set those limits with empathy.
Here's how it works.
We can define self control, or "self-discipline" as controlling our impulses so that we're able to meet our own goals. Specifically, when we exercise self-discipline,
we're usually giving up something we want, in pursuit of something we want more.
So every time your child chooses to shift gears from what she wants to do, to follow your lead, she practices regulating her impulses. She's
building self-discipline muscle. (Or, actually, neural pathways. But like muscle, these neural pathways get stronger with use, so you can think
of it as building a stronger brain that's capable of harder work.)
So yes, that's why kids need limits. Permissive parenting doesn't help kids develop self-discipline because it doesn't ask them to exercise self control
in pursuit of their larger goal.
There is a catch, though. The limits have to be empathic, so the child chooses to follow them. Punitive limits --including "consequences" -- don't help
kids learn to self-regulate, because the discipline comes from outside. The child isn't choosing to rein in his own impulse. So even if he
does what you want, he's not actually "practicing" self discipline and building that mental muscle.
What do I mean? Think about your son practicing his jump shot over and over. He may want to sit down and rest, but there's something he wants more --a
basket! Being motivated toward a goal is a great way for kids to develop self-discipline.
But kids also learn self discipline from the daily limits you set, as long as you set them with empathy. Why is empathy essential to this process? Because
your child is less likely to struggle against the limit. She may not like your limit, but she feels your understanding and compassion. She knows
you're on her side. So she chooses to stop fighting for what she wants, so she can have something she wants more -- to stay lovingly connected to you,
even to be "like" you. She chooses to regulate her own impulses. She accepts your limit, and even internalizes it -- makes it her own.
That's how your child internalizes your rules and values. It begins with the connection -- he WANTS to please you, as long as he doesn't have to give up
his own integrity to do it. Over time, he begins to think of himself as the kind of person who brushes his teeth, does his homework, tells the truth,
and lends a helping hand. The kind of person who can apply himself with discipline to achieve his goals. That makes for a confident, happy, cooperative
Since your warm connection with your child is the reason he eventually accepts and internalizes your limits, it's critical to stay connected while you
set limits. And guess how you maintain that connection? Empathy! Including empathy while you set limits, which keeps you connected even when
you say no.
What does an empathic limit look like? Empathy is "feeling" the other person's point of view. Setting limits is informing your child of a rule or expectation.
Here's how you combine them:
- "You love running, don't you?! You can run all you want in the grass. Streets are not for running; streets are for cars. You may hold my hand or I can carry you. You can run by yourself again on the other side of the street."
- "I see how mad you are at your brother. It's okay to be mad, AND people are never for hitting. Come, let's tell your brother how mad you are. I'll help you."
- "Wow, Sara put up those photos from Saturday? That's exciting. And the rule in our house is still that homework comes first. You can go online once your homework is finished. I know, it's hard to wait! But it's always good to have something to look forward to, once you finish your homework. That's a good self-management trick."
If a limit is worth setting, it's worth being consistent about. There may be times when a new limit is necessary: "I have a headache and I can't handle noise right now"
but in general your child shouldn't be surprised by what you allow. Every household has different priorities; mine are Safety & Health, Respectful
Relationships, and Values. Neatness and noise, not so much. Of course, your own limits will be based on what's important to you.
Why should you have to prioritize and give up some of what you expect? Because your child is a human, and a developing one at that. She can't
possibly be perfect, any more than you can. And your relationship with her needs to be more about connection and discovery than about limits and
frustration. Saying No too often undermines your relationship.
Which is, after all, the foundation of your child's self-discipline!