Self-Control and Willpower

At least once a day my son and I listen to our public radio station, for an hour or so, depending on how long it takes to prepare and eat a meal and clean up afterwards. Depending on what meal it is (or rather what time of the day it is), we end up listening to different topics on different days: news, an interview on a social issue, or a parenting issue, or a political issue, or simply an interview with Brad Pitt. Whatever.

I never try to trick myself into believing that the radio is about my son, his language skills, for example, although he will repeat a word or two said or start dancing to any kind of even remotely danceable music, which makes me think he actually listens to the radio somewhat. Listening to the radio is about me.  Of course, I pay attention to my son enough to make sure he doesn’t do something that’s dangerous or totally out of line, like try to push himself up against a kitchen cabinet drawer (which is supposed to be able to hold seventy pounds, but I’d rather not test it). And I try not to feel guilty for listening to English in my primarily-Serbian-time with my son. I comfort myself with the thought that this totally unstructured time allows my son to look for creative ways to entertain himself and at the same time provides an opportunity for me to easily jump out of the lovely, but not always easy world that my two-year-old son and I share for many hours every day.

A couple of weeks ago I learned about this book: Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. I have read quite a few parenting books since I found out I was pregnant, but most of them were written by psychologists and psychiatrists, not scientists. This book, whose (at least one) author is a neuroscientist, uses data from different studies to explain how a child’s brain works and what it is capable of learning at different ages. Among many other topics, the book highlights and explains facts related to language development:  The best time for language learning is before the child turns six; TV probably won’t enhance your child’s vocabulary; It doesn’t make much sense trying to teach your two- or three-year-old how to read; Teaching your child more than one language won’t harm him or her.

What I found most interesting is the information on self-control, probably because my son is quite intense. I have trained myself to use this word and not something like, He has a really bad temper and zero patience. Of course, he is only two, and this age is called “terrible-twos” for a good reason, but I still feel he might need some extra help learning how to control his impulses (his temperament will  definitely not make this journey easy for him, although I am happy to see that his make-up includes as much persistence as mine does). This book offers some interesting ways to teach self-control through imagination and play. For example, encouraging your child to pretend he or she is guarding a castle instead of asking him or her to stand still, or playing take turns games where the child gets to practice self-control as he or she is waiting for his or her turn.

Many times I wonder how I was taught self-control and discipline. I have the feeling that Serbian school system was designed to teach kids self-control and discipline and not much else. To be expected to memorize the quantity of the uninteresting facts that we had to memorize – that will definitely teach one self-control and willpower, just not necessarily in a good way. Sometimes I also wonder if watching my highly disciplined physician father and having him as a role model helped too, and I regret never even getting close to learning his punctuality.

I remind myself often that modeling certain behaviors and values is the best gift I can give to my son (as I try to watch my language and stop before I toss the remnants of my apple to the sink without getting up or turn off the vacuum cleaner with my foot), but the Welcome to Your Child’s Brain suggests some simple and imaginative ways to offer your child an opportunity to practice self-control. In an effort to teach my son how to share (which I know is incredibly hard at this age), I started insisting my son and his visiting playmate take turns playing with the specific toy they both desire, and six or more months later I think it’s starting to sink in. Andrei can actually (occasionally) give up on the toy for a short amount of time without throwing a tantrum. One day at a time, I remind myself.

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