Kids reach a milestone in developing self-control at their 3rd year. It starts when 3 year olds decide on being independent , so we often get to hear „I want to… by myself”. This really is a good moment to grant your child a degree of independence. While keeping an eye out for dangers of course (hot beverages, fire). It’s worthwhile not to do everything yourself even though the child will act unskillfully (spill or brake something). Every time we want to take an activity away from the child (Yes! It is „taking away” something) because they had made a mistake, just remember how many mistakes we, adults make (at a new job for example) and how frustrating it is, when we don’t get the chance to learn something, because a more experienced co-worker declares „oh, let me do it, you’re not doing it right…”. Do you know that frustrating feeling? Suddenly you feel worse and useless. It’s similar with a child, which is learning for the first time how to do things, which to us, grown-ups, seem absolutely basic and simple.
A child which independently does something for the first time is immensely proud of their skill (even if they’re doing something clumsy) and it’s good to boost this joy and the positive pride of doing something new. And if the child makes a mess of the kitchen and themselves in the process… well… we either want to have a clean kitchen or a smart child These first experiences with one’s own activity are very important , they build a strong psychological foundation for one’s whole life for feeling joy about being active (the base of being a hard worker later) and a lack of fear of making mistakes and decisions (the base of decisiveness and bravery).
The third year of life is very important as the starting point of building independence and self-control. In this period children:
• Gain knowledge about themselves – self-awareness: the build their own self-image based on the decisions, which they make and their consequences (the subconscious messages in their heads may say something like: „everyone is happy, when I do something independently I’m smart and strong” or the opposite „I keep doing something wrong, someone keeps correcting me and doing it for me, I’m useless”)
• Based on the above the child develops a feeling of self-worth, self-assessment, self-acceptance
• She/ he develops the ability of self-regulation, self-control – parents and other guardians may help in this a lot encouraging the kid to be patient in her/his actions and to not give up when something isn’t going well (a positive message from chaperones is „well, try it again”; a negative message is „oh, you see, you’re not doing well, you’ve stained your clothes again, bruised yourself, give that to me, I’ll help you – actually I’ll do it for you”)
• Based on the above a child develops a strive for independence (or doesn’t)
We’re talking about a very important moment here. A child is developing the ability to be independent and self-control, so they’re moving from parent-controlled actions to independently regulating their own actions and emotions.
I’ve mentioned above that self-control is the ability to restrain from impulsively acting under the influence of emotions or outer situations. There are 4 types of restraining abilities which make up self-control (Macoby, 1980):
• Restrain from acting abruptly („I want this toy now, NOW”)
• Restrain from showing emotions on the spot („I don’t like you, you’re dumb!”)
• Restrain from drawing conclusions on the spot („you didn’t take me for a walk– you don’t love me!”)
• Restrain from making choices without taking the situation into account („I’d rather get one candy today then a whole box tomorrow”).
Only at around their 4th year of life do children begin to consciously control the intensity of their emotions, make more thought-over decisions and choices, plan their actions (but it’s normal that they might still fail at particular tasks). Pre-school kids have a problem with, as it’s called ‘delaying gratification’, so they would rather have something now than wait and receive something more valuable later. Only during later childhood (around the 12th year of age ) do they fully realize, that it’s better to let go of a small prize now and wait for a bigger one, even if it requires patience and time.
Waiting and patience are the hardest tasks for a preschooler. That’s why the attitude and help of parents is so important. As always the “golden middle” approach is best.
Being too restrictive and stressing discipline by parents results in the child being „obedient” only when the parents are watching, and when they leave the child alone she/ he will brake all the rules. That’s because the rules which parents impose on us do not become internal rules (of the child). So this is about our child not beating up a younger brother not because „dad’s watching” but because she/ he feels that it’s good to take care of the younger and weaker.
On the other hand a complete lack of discipline and rules from the parents results in the child not having “a compass for what is right”. The kid is only learning the world and it’s rules, that’s why parents are authority figures and show what is important and proper and how to act. Even if we are in the dark ourselves the child will still look at us as the most important role model and will need stability, security and a reassurance on what is right and what is wrong. Succumbing to the whims of a child which falls into a hysteria in the mall because she/he wants a new toy will only result in their not learning that for a lot of things in life you need to wait, and as a grown-up being very frustrated because no one is giving them what they want.
The „golden middle” approach are parents setting the boundaries , allowing the child a lot of independence and activity but knowing when to say „no” if some action is harmful to the child or their surroundings.
And of course, as always, the simplest suggestions are not exactly easiest to follow. Good luck!
Macoby, E. E. (1980). Social development. Psychological growth and the parent – child relationship. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.