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Teaching kids self-control — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My children range in age from 3 to 14 years old. Somewhere during childhood, I feel they should be learning self-control. The 8-year-old, particularly, doesn’t keep to limits I try to set for her – like not wasting my paper and ink with so much printing. She’s been ignoring my requests and reminders to not make so many copies. I caught on when I realized how quickly I was running through ink cartridges and copy paper. I do some work from home, so I need to keep supplies on hand at all times. The 8-year-old likes to print out cartoon characters in black and white to color. The 10-year-old likes to play school and is using up the color cartridges with worksheets for her “class” to complete. She is much more remorseful than her sister is, though, when I notice and react.

Maybe I’m overreacting?

How can I get them to see that there are limits we have to respect? Is this too much to ask of children? I hate to fuss at them, and even that doesn’t seem to have any impact on the 8-year-old.

Brakes Aren’t Working

Don’t miss last week’s column How to help children grow up without bias — Good Parenting

Dear B.A.W.,

Yes, children need adults to put the brakes on for them as they eventually learn to do it for themselves.

Limits are related to consequences. If a limit isn’t set and followed, there is a consequence suffered by someone. In your case, it seems you are the one suffering the most since you have to replace the paper and ink. Parents can either leave a child alone to learn a natural consequence, such as Mommy loses her temper when the printer runs out of ink, or parents can set a limit by imposing a logical consequence that spares everyone involved from a worse outcome such as there’s no money to buy more ink because Mommy lost her job.

Nature is a great teacher for many things, but logic — adult logic that helps a child to understand what the adult is trying to enforce — is often needed for good parenting.

Let’s use your paper and cartridges as the perfect example. Currently your children seem to have unlimited access to these tools. And naturally, the children would just keep on printing and printing until the paper or ink ran out on them. This is what happens without adult supervision and intervention since you probably have other demands on your time than watching their every move.

The logical consequence needed for your daughters’ overrun of copies is that you will choose a time each day when the children can make a specified number copies. “Don’t use so much” has no concrete meaning. “You’re wasting my paper,” is ignored as a rant. Pick a time you can closely supervise to be sure your limits are kept. When it is copy time, you set the number of copies permitted and count out that amount for the printer tray. The rest of the paper, following adult logic, is kept in an undisclosed and inaccessible location for the duration of the training period — two weeks at most. Access to the printer is also physically prevented. This might be by unplugging it and storing it away when you are not using it, or more simply blocking all computer use with password protection.

It will take a bit of your time and effort to get the children used to the idea that what you said about limiting their copies is an actual number that you will control, but after a few days or weeks, the children will learn that you meant what you said. The goal is for a little voice in their heads to replace the necessity of your having to be physically present to control their actions.

Sigmund Freud called this process “developing a Super Ego.” That is, the limits consistently set and enforced by the parent become internalized by the child as a rule to keep for himself. One of Freud’s examples (remember this was 100 years ago) is that a young child quickly learns not to touch the hot stove. The parent constantly admonishes the child to keep his distance. If there isn’t close supervision to prevent touching the stove the child learns the hard way, reinforcing what the parent has been saying. Freud’s expectation is that by age 5, a child keeps his own hand from the hot stove.

Freud’s observation, which is still true today, is that children under the age of 5 are very impulsive and therefore need close supervision. After that there are age-related and personality-related temptations that suggest stronger enforcement of limits by a wise and caring adult. Screen time is a good example of an enjoyable activity that if enjoyed beyond 2 hours per day causes undesirable consequences over the long run – impaired social interaction skills, sleep problems, decreased physical activity, inappropriate models of behavior, etc.

Limit setting is an important function of being a good parent. To do this, you must consider each child’s interests and abilities, and the risk of economic cost, injury or hurt feelings the unrestrained behavior could cause. As children grow and change you will find new issues that require you to set and enforce new limits until they can manage each one for themselves. Before your children leave home as young adults, they should be getting the idea of how limits work for their own good.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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