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Find and Replace: Self-Regulation Is the New Self-Control

Managing the self is a juggling act that gets better with practice. Here's how.

Key points

  • Self-control is the ability to pause or stop behavior, but self-regulation means you have the flexibility to pivot behavior after the pause.
  • Just like any skill, self-regulation is enhanced through practice by strengthening connections between specific neurons.
  • Parents can boost self-regulation by allowing kids to make choices and by developing underlying skills, such as empathy and problem-solving.

Every parent knows that self-control is an important skill. We spend hours talking about it with our kids, sometimes to no avail. Self-control is hard, even for adults—it’s always a “no,” or a state of inaction. The problem with pushing self-control on kids is two-fold: First, children’s brains are not fully developed, so impulse control is more difficult. Second, self-control is a resource that can hypothetically be used up, leaving kids with no backup strategies. Instead, we need to be teaching our children self-regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to blaze a trail toward a goal, while still preserving trust and reciprocity in those around you. Although more complicated than self-control, is actually easier to teach kids because it’s a “yes,” and often a state of action. When we use self-regulation, we look at situations as problems that need to be solved, consider all the choices, and make the best decision possible. Good self-regulation usually gets us what we want and need, and, importantly, self-regulation doesn’t get depleted in the same way that self-control can. We just need to practice it.

Take, for example, Micah, age 9—a super-bright kid who can’t stand losing. He’s a perfectionist who does OK with nightly word study homework at home, but if you cap off his week with prepping for a competitive spelling bee on Friday, he’s an absolute mess. His little brother Charlie gets the worst of it—it’s no fun to play games with Micah because Micah always has to win and Charlie always ends up crying.

Micah’s mom, Maggie, is at her wit’s end. She’s tried talking through game situations with him, explained the impact his actions have on others, pointed out principles of good sportsmanship in football games, and has even played Monopoly against him and won on purpose. Nothing seems to be working. Maggie’s been even more worried about his competitive streak since the last school conference, when Micah’s teacher told her it’s impacting his school relationships, too. Middle school isn’t that far away, and his social skills need help for smooth tween sailing.

Maggie and her husband visit a psychologist to discuss Micah’s relationships with others, but Maggie feels like she just vented for an hour. She can’t see how bringing Micah in weekly to talk it out will make a difference. She thinks about searching for a social skills class, but she can only find them locally for children on the autism spectrum, so he doesn’t qualify to enroll.

Short-Term Parenting Strategies

What can Maggie do? In the immediate now, Maggie wants to steer Micah toward good social decision-making by practicing the specific skill sets he lacks: Micah needs focused practice winning and losing.

  1. She can model what she’d like to see: Maggie decides to teach Micah how to play Gin Rummy. Bright as he is, he quickly learns the game well enough to beat her, and he does so rather ungraciously. Curbing any rudeness from him, Maggie carefully tells him “Good game” and extends a hand to shake each time they end a game, no matter who wins. Maggie does this because she knows that with every handshake and every required “Good game,” Micah says back, she’s helping him make neuronal connections that, with practice, will stick.
  2. She can shift the power balance: Next, Maggie asks Micah to teach his brother Charlie how to play the card game. She tells him that if Charlie can beat him at Gin Rummy, then they’ll all go out to dinner at Micah’s favorite restaurant.
  3. Finally, she can step away: If Micah agrees to the plan, then Maggie leaves the room. Micah is in control, he teaches Charlie, and when Charlie eventually wins, there’s no postgame crying for the first time in what seems like years. Maggie really thinks she heard Micah say an unprompted “Good game” to Charlie afterward.

You might think that the last thing Micah needs is more power—after all, he doesn’t do that well when he’s in the power position as the winner of a game. But, for Micah, there is something very scary about the idea of losing. His relationship with the power of winning is problematic, since raising a kid who can’t lose means he’ll have to learn to fail on his own later, probably when his parents aren’t around. As a highly reactive kid, Micah needs to take baby steps toward practicing losing graciously, so embedding a lose within a win makes sense as a parenting strategy for him.

Why Did Maggie’s Plan Work?

Maggie figured out a long-term parenting goal. She is working toward it by asking Micah to practice the skills she wants to see in him. But, in her method, Maggie herself is also practicing self-control, empathy, and creativity in her dealings with Micah. These skills are the building blocks of good self-regulation. She is setting a great example with her crafted losses to Micah. She demonstrates respect for others as she models how to be both a good winner and loser repeatedly, minimizing the difference between a win and a loss before she turned Micah loose with Charlie.

Neuroscience tells us that neuronal pathways that are used frequently are more likely to be used in the future. If Maggie does more than a one-time practice event, eventually Micah’s knee-jerk response to a loss will be a handshake and a “Good game.” Empowering kids means trusting them to weigh the choices and to follow their own map.

Respect makes people feel powerful, as does the perception of control. The perception of control lets a person make better decisions. Power is a strategic advantage that comes in many forms. It can be power of place, financial power, social power, power of knowledge, and power of experience. In every social situation, somebody is a little bit more in charge. A loss of power puts someone at a disadvantage, and, let’s face it, kids are rarely in the power position. We experience these transient power shifts as our level of comfort in any given situation, but it’s important to recognize that constantly feeling powerless can lead to really bad behavior or shutting down in kids.

One of the simplest ways to respect your child is to offer him or her choices whenever possible. They don’t always have to be equally desirable choices, but autonomy is a freedom that humanity holds dear. Choices allow children to feel more powerful, and, not surprisingly, they will more fully own the outcome if they got a choice to start with. Choices give space for better self-regulation.

Long-Term Parenting Strategies

Maggie is thinking about her long-term parenting goals for Micah’s trajectory. This is bigger than simply keeping Micah from ostracizing potential friends and bigger than protecting Charlie from a potentially scarring sibling rivalry. Maggie knows that Micah needs to work on building empathy skills to relate better to others, so she wants to make that a priority, but she’s also worried about Micah’s lack of self-control. She believes that culturing creativity is important, too, since if he can control his impulses long enough, a bright kid like Micah may be able to think himself out of situations and come up with his own alternative ways of handling things. She feels that if she can impart these skills to Micah, he will have a much better shot at being happy and successful.

Now she needs to figure out how to get there. The way to culture important life skills is by practicing the things you want to see more of, and by not practicing the behaviors you would love to see disappear. This is when a basic understanding of how neurons work is so important for parents to have. An awareness of the nuts and bolts of brain connectivity allows us to see how parenting is actually pruning a child’s brain—specifically, which synapses are strengthening in the short-term and how we can use that information to allow us to reach our long-term parenting goals.

We don't need to memorize tons of anatomy to understand how the brain works. We just need to learn how individual neurons can be influenced. Every neuron works using the same basic principles, so if you understand how practice works to enhance any skill—whether it’s learning how to walk or memorizing your favorite song—then you understand the idea of neuroplasticity. That parenting knowledge can then easily transfer to teaching the more complicated skills that your child needs to learn, like being a good sport or the ability to receive constructive criticism.

Part of our role as parents is to help our kids make decisions in a more and more autonomous way until we’re hands-off completely. This type of scaffolding, particularly when it is neuroscience-informed, will teach them how to craft their own neural architecture. The keys to good self-regulation are having a growth mindset, knowing how practice affects synaptic connections, and understanding that we can always change our brain connections no matter how old we are.

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