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Are You Being Held Ransom by Kiddie Extortion? 8 Strategies for Teaching Your Children Self-Control

It’s never too early to start giving your children the tools they’ll need to be successful throughout their lives. As you focus on this goal, remember that self-control isn’t just about waiting; it also includes self-regulation and self-motivation. Read on for eight tips on how to help your children learn self-control.

Check out my vlog on this topic: www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4sLOtT56v0.

1. Say no to kiddie extortion – period. Picture this: Your three-year-old comes to you and says, “Mom, I want some a dose cookies ova dere.” You know exactly what they’re talking about: the bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies your mother-in-law dropped off earlier in the day. Problem is, it’s almost bedtime, and the last thing you want is your child on a sugar high. You start to shake your head, and it starts: The trembling lip. The flushed cheeks. The watering eyes. You’re tempted to give in and hand over the cookie now before the crying or – heaven forbid – full-out hysterics begin. Don’t – be strong!

Don’t cave into whiny demands and offer a reward for a measly effort at  self-control, or no effort at all. This is what I call kiddie extortion: Parents are held ransom by a fitful child until they too want to scream. Yes, we have all been there.
And I know from experience that it’s a great temptation to give them anything they want to stop the unwanted behavior. However, a better choice is to remove your child from the situation and give them some time alone to reflect and calm down. Tell your child to take a deep breath and then another one. Once they have calmed down, let them know how you expect them to behave, and give them another chance to succeed.

2. Set reasonable expectations and consequences. Before you start a family-wide campaign focused on perfect self-control (or bust!), take a step back and think through what’s doable and reasonable. Remember, a reasonable amount of self-control will look a lot different for your six-year-old than for your two-year-old. Once you have decided on goals for each of your children, as well as consequences when expectations aren’t met, communicate those to your kids.

When children understand what behaviors are expected of them, they are more likely to do them. Simple lessons on delayed gratification may include cleaning their rooms before getting TV time or, for older kids, no loans until payday when it comes to allowance. Whatever you decide, be consistent.

3. Remember, not all rewards are objects. At times, it may seem like your kids are zoom-focused on getting “stuff” as rewards, whether that’s a new toy, a favorite dessert or even a special privilege. Remember, though, that even if they don’t verbalize it, your children also value the love, approval and time you have to give.

Never underestimate the power of praise, hugs, treats – like a trip to a favorite park – or special time together as the real rewards in life. Notice when your child has done something wonderful. Say so loud and clear!

4. Banish “failure” from your vocabulary. If your child is putting forth effort but getting discouraged on a project, stop and give them a hug. Encourage them to keep trying and reassure them that they can do it. And if you see that your child isn’t up to the task of finding the solution or completing the proposed project, gently suggest that they stop, take a breather and try something else.

One of the most crucial things in helping your children learn the pleasure of effort is letting them know that there are many solutions to any situation. There is no such word as ‘failure’ unless you decide to give up. Choosing to stop and try something else is not failure, but part of the creative process that often leads to better solutions.

5. Help them learn through play. My sister, Marisa, has invented a game called ‘Jellybean-Hide-and-Seek’ to teach my two toddlers the rewards of both effort and sharing. “Close your eyes and count to 10,” she tells them, while she hides groups of two jellybeans around the house. Each time either one of the children finds the two jellybeans, the treats are shared. Thus, the success of one child becomes the success of the other – a fun lesson in teamwork.

“The kids then have the option of saving the jellybeans or eating them immediately. Alessio, who is three, used to gobble up the treats as fast as he could get his hands on them. Now he is starting to save some of his jellybeans to savor later.”
6. Let them make decisions. Yes, mom and dad usually know best, and dictating the ‘right’ behavior can often save time, effort and tears. But sooner or later your kids will need to navigate life without you calling the shots, and good decision-making takes practice. Let your children know you have confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and very often they will.

7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If your young child accepts direction without complaint and never needs further correction, it’s time to start worrying: your child may be a robot. All joking aside, though, it’s a fact of life that children often won’t absorb new behaviors the first, third or even tenth time you offer instruction. That’s why it’s so important to repeat what you’d like them to do and why.

Especially with very young kids, you may not see any return for a while. Your child just may not ‘get’ why you want them to do or not do something. The key is sticking with it. Even if you sound like a broken record, talk through your expectations again and again. Seek out examples where you see self-control or self-motivation happening, and narrate why they caught your eye. Sooner or later, your words will sink in.

8. Be a good example. “Do as I say, not as I do” has never been (and never will be) a valid parenting strategy. To put it simply, kids learn the bulk of their behaviors, habits and attitudes from watching you. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re not invalidating your instructions with your actions.

Believe me – I know that self-control can be hard for adults too. “If your kids have never caught you stuffing your face from the bag of chips in the pantry after you told them they couldn’t have any more, for example, then my hat is off to you! When you do make a mistake, be sure to acknowledge it to your children. I also suggest teaming up with them to practice self-control for both of you. For instance, you might say, “I know you want to go see the movie that just came out – I’d like to go with you! If you can help me pick up all your toys and put them away tonight without whining, we can go to the theatre tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, remember that each child is different, and each one develops at a unique rate. Don’t use your brother’s kids, the students in your son’s preschool class or even his older sister as a measuring stick for success or failure. Just be persistent and consistent, and one day, you’ll be amazed and impressed by just how much self-control and persistence your child is displaying.


Ivana, (aka The Modern Princess Ivana), is the author of the upcoming book, A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was co-written with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana – The Modern Princess, www.princessivana.com, is a blend of humor, practical advice and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom, www.modernmom.com/users/modernprincess.

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