Self Control – Not Just for Kids…

I have been planning on writing a post about the need to teach self control to our kids.  I was thinking just today that it may be one of the most important things we offer our kids – encouragement and experiences with practicing self control.

Oh, right, and having the grace to model it ourselves.

I am not always good at this.  Sometimes I am a champ, so proud of how I stay rooted in my values while being flexible with the challenges my children bring me.  Sometimes I am the parent I want to me.

Sometimes, I’m not.

Lately I have been really challenged.  I have been allowing myself to get really caught up in the emotions that are triggered by my family, finding myself sinking into the logic of "oh, let them pay…  let them walk on eggshells…  let them feel as bad as I do… "

This is such an ugly place to be.  It correlates with what I am eating, how often I am exercising, and how behind on work I am.  I become unhappy with myself, and turn that hurt towards those closest to me.

At least I am self-aware, right?

Unfortunately, even this self awareness isn’t always enough for me to decide to turn it around.  Ultimately it is up to me.  Its about self control.  I feel bad, do I have enough self control to get it together?  Be present for my family?  Take care of myself?  Only I can answer these questions….

Ha!  The thought that it is up to ME to teach, model and provide my kids with opportunities to practice self control feels like the biggest JOKE sometimes!  I hear myself telling the kids things like:

“You are in charge of you….”

“Snap out of it….”

“You don’t need to take us all down with your mood….”

“You have tools to help yourself feel better…”

I say these things out loud, and then I think – MAYBE YOU SHOULD TAKE YOUR OWN ADVICE?!?  Seriously, sometimes I yell this in my head.  And then comes the gremlins, the voice of self doubt and shame….  Ugh, the spin out is exhausting…

But tonight I reminded myself what I am capable of.  Tonight I was a pillar of self control – not only that, I followed it up with guiding my child through an activity to help him do better – yay!

Here is how it went down…

The kids are in charge of doing some “family work” after dinner.  I have written about it before, tasks to help tidy up the kitchen and build a sense of significance and meaning.  My sweet seven year old gets into the habit of taking forever and has trained me to get really BUGGED OUT before he moves it along.

Basically, he has made the completion of his family work my job.  And on occasion, it sends me over the edge.

Because he has been successful at this task before, staying focused and getting it done, it really gets under my skin when he doesn’t just move it along. 

I don’t know if I can back this by science or anything, but to me it seems a lot like that moment that I just decide to let the emotions take over….  There is a moment where I get to decide how to handle the situation, and its easy to be reactive rather than work to be different – I feel like it is the same for him.  Perhaps it is easier for him to wander, distracted, unattached to his responsibilities (perhaps this responsibility makes him feel discouraged and this is his way of avoiding that uncomfortable feeling?  Oh man, I could be on to something…), rather than getting down to business and doing his work. 

It's about practice. 

I become triggered by his avoiding behavior – sometimes to the point where I am getting in his face, shaming, blaming to get him to do what needs to be done.  I feel bad, he feels bad – it sucks.  AND, he doesn’t get any better at handling this discouragement.

Tonight I was different.  I stayed calm, still clearly annoyed by the whole situation, but I didn’t fly off the handle. I stayed calm.  I gave a lot of reminders, and stayed present.  I won’t pretend that I was smiling, I wasn’t – I am sure my son knew that I was irritated.  And I stayed calm.  I modeled self control, and it was clearly tough work.

It’s about practice.

If I can practice this, so can my kids.

A bit later my son and I had a little chat about how the evening felt for him.  It took a bit of effort for him to realize that I wanted his honest opinion of family work time, not just a canned response of what he thought I wanted to hear.

“Tell me how you feel about family work.” I said to him.

“I don’t like it, it takes so loooooong, I don’t like packing my lunch after dinner, “ he replied.

“Hmm,” I said, “do you have any ideas about how to make it easier?  Any solutions to help you do better?”

Now, I have a normal kid, so at first he just shrugged, and responded with an “I don’t know.”  This is what happens until they realize that you aren’t laying a trap down for them, that you are genuinely curious and ready to hear their ideas without judgement.

His first idea for the list of solutions was to “make a chart.”  I laughed as he reflected that we have a “million” charts around our house.  I wrote it down and asked for more ideas.  Others included using a timer, and setting it for 15 minutes to try and beat the time, using a stopwatch to time himself, not bringing toys downstairs when its dinner time, and to make lunch in the afternoon rather than at night.

He circled the ideas he wanted to try for the next week.

“How are you going to remember these?” I asked, not wanting it to be my job to remind him about his solutions….

“I don’t know.”  Of course he said that, he’s seven.

“I have some really fun pens up here, do you have any drawing paper?  You could write these helpful solutions down…” I suggested.

That is exactly what he did.

Ian's solutions for a smoother Family Work time...

Ian's solutions for a smoother Family Work time...

Our children need to see self control in action before they can begin to embody it.  We (parents) get caught up in our emotions from time to time, yes.  But why is it we expect consistent self control from our children, when it is so often a challenge for us?

I don’t think anyone can embody self control all the time – and that isn’t the point.  We have continuous opportunities to practice self control, and that is what this whole journey is all about. 

Our conscious effort at controlling ourselves, even when the strain is obvious, will do more to teach our children to control themselves than any lecture or consequence.  When they can see it in action, can watch us doing our work, they have a model for what it looks like.  And when we are in control of ourselves, we are available to help our children solve problems, find solutions, and be their best selves..