Self-Control

We’ve been reading a lot about out of control behavior in the last several weeks. Perhaps there are distinctions in the levels of unacceptable behavior that have been reported but they are alike in falling outside the bounds of what is socially – in some instances legally – acceptable.

There is a Talmudic saying that no one is the owner of his instincts. I think that means our instincts operate independently of our will. But a civilized society requires that we learn to control those instincts.

This idea is meaningful for us as parents. Childhood is a time when instincts and impulses are expressed in behavior. Children go after the things they find pleasurable and strike out when denied what they want. They act in accordance with their desires and without much awareness of the effect of their behavior on someone else.

Do we ever really lose the impulse to demand or just take what we want? We probably never “own” those impulses. At best we have learned to control the behavior those impulses give rise to, and then have pushed the wishes themselves far down inside in order to fortify our control over our behavior. So there are strong reactions to others – especially those in the public eye – who don’t have, or don’t use those controls over their own behavior.

The same thing often happens in response to our children’s as yet unsocialized and uncivilized behavior. During infancy we are accepting of babies’ need to function in accordance with their instincts even when providing this care interferes with our own wishes and needs. But when babies turn into children, we think about “setting limits” on what now seems like infantile behavior.

It is appropriate for children to learn about controlling their impulses, and for us to teach them to do so. The question is how to do that. Often this process involves our own self-control as much as it does our child’s. Children have the capacity to bring us down to their level. We find ourselves screaming or even hitting in response to their behavior. A child’s lack of control can make us feel out of control ourselves.

The uncivilized behavior of our children peels back our own layers of civilization. So we get worried about their behavior – and our own – which can lead to a great feeling of urgency about getting everyone’s behavior under control. When that happens it is easy to stop teaching and look for ways to make children stop doing what they are doing.

One familiar way of doing that is to express in the strongest way our disapproval of behavior we think children should control. We tend to label such behavior “bad.” But children don’t distinguish between their behavior and themselves. If their behavior is “bad”, that means they are “bad” and so are their feelings and impulses. Controlling the behavior can get mixed up with not feeling the feelings.

An important part of developing self-control is being able to tell the difference between feelings and behavior. Having certain feelings doesn’t mean we are going to act on them. Truly being in control means being aware of our feelings yet being confident that we won’t act on them.

Children need help and time to develop those controls. That time involves our not expecting more of them than they are capable of. Help means providing the control they don’t as yet have. When a baby is crawling toward a light socket, we don’t depend on words to help her stop. We’re there to stop her. In the same way, it doesn’t help a child to keep telling him not to hit his sister, or not to take his little brother’s toys. We have to provide the intervention that will help him actually control those impulses when they are getting the better of him.

Feeling an impulse and not acting on it is what gives one the experience of self-control. Our children may never “own” their instincts, but hopefully we can help as they begin to master them.