How can I teach self-control to my child?

New York City’s now infamous "big soda ban" was recently rejected by that city’s highest court. The ban would have limited the amount of soda that a consumer could purchase in one container--outlawing those gallon-size containers with a straw.

The push to limit the size of these containers wasn’t without merit; existing research has shown that the more food we are presented, the more we consume. This finding holds true for our children as well.

But soda isn’t the only culprit when it comes to unhealthy eating, especially for children, who are faced with numerous temptations to eat unhealthy foods—and to a larger extent,  engage in unhealthy  behavior. With that in mind, how can parents teach their children about self-control, whether that’s picking healthier food options or trying a cigarette?

Numerous studies have shown that supporting the development of self-control in early childhood can have lasting effects into adolescence and adulthood. Think of self- control as  a muscle that gets stronger as it’s exercised. Parents can support children in developing that muscle in the following ways:

1. Providing choices: Children are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. But too much of this external control leads to disengagement and a lack of personal responsibility. When children can make their own choices, however, they feel more empowered, and learn to better accept the consequences of those choices. Allow your child to make her own decision when it’s warranted—such as what vegetable to eat with dinner, what color plate to use, or what shoes she’d like to wear. When her choice leads to a negative consequence—perhaps dress shoes were not the best idea for the pool-- discuss with her why another choice would have been better.

2. Teaching moderation: Self-control involves an understanding that some things are essential, and other things are “treats." In terms of food, research shows that if someone is completely deprived of an item such as soda or candy, it makes him or her want that item more. So make the decision with your child as to which foods will be everyday healthy foods and which foods are sometimes foods, and he will be more likely to refrain from those “sometimes” foods. Including him in other household decisions such as developing a chore chart or negotiating bedtime routines will also aid in the development of self-control.

3. Practice waiting: Children who are able to delay immediate gratification generally go on to have better outcomes as adults in areas such as life satisfaction and personal health. That said, it’s important to remember that teaching a child to wait is teaching them about trust—he trusts you to provide whatever it is he is waiting for. For example, if you tell your child to wait until after dinner to have their snack, be sure to provide it. He will be more likely to wait if he knows he will eventually receive it.  But be realistic about how long you’re asking him to wait. Asking a toddler to wait for five minutes might seem like an eternity, but for an older child it is more palatable. Visual cues such as a timer can help him “see” the passage of time, and distractions such as reading or playing a game can help that time go faster.

Developing self-control has lifelong implications for your child. As he grows, he will be presented with numerous decisions regarding his health. As a parent, you can ensure he has the skills to make the healthy choice.

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