Parenting for Character 4 by Charles Debelak

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Birchwood School of Hawken students

TEACHING SELF-CONTROL

Teaching is the first aspect of character education. It is most effective when it is built around a common language. At Birchwood we use Aristotle’s seven moral virtues – courage, self-control, justice, wisdom, compassion, gratitude, and humility – as a framework for inspiring and cultivating a life of becoming and a life that lives well among others. We define each virtue so that each will have broad applications for children and opportunities for practice.

Self-control is a partner with courage. Both are framed in the context of “becoming,” that is having growth, thriving and flourishing as the means and goal for a fulfilled life. Becoming may be related to personal or social growth.

Courage is how we approach a becoming life, how we face our aspirations and dreams. It assumes the importance of goals and then admonishes us to count the price and weigh the inherent sacrifices necessary to reach those goals.

Self-control is the practical implementation of courage. It is the on-the-spot virtue that discerns, “Will this activity help me reach my goals, or will this activity distract me from my goals?” In addition, self-control prioritizes and regulates our activities and behaviors to comport with our higher aspirations.

Considerable research has identified self-control as perhaps the most important predictor of one’s success in life whether associated with personal achievement goals or social relational goals. And like all character virtues, it is best taught at an early age. This is because in the midst of our 21st century culture, our children are bombarded with pleasures and delights that easily captivate their baser impulses and habituate their passions for immediate gratification.

Now, please don’t take me wrong. I am not a stoic nor a curmudgeon. I am grateful that I live in a country where there are such pleasures and delights. But I do caution. If indulgence in these joys becomes a necessity and thereupon habitual, I know that it will become harder and harder for children to practice self-control for the attainment of higher purposes.

Self-control means I control my impulses and direct my behaviors to those activities which will benefit me most in reaching my goals. I have found during my many years of teaching children, that the language of self-control is powerful because children understand this language. They understand themselves often far more than we adults give them credit.

For example in my math class, as I review math homework from the previous evening, a student will sheepishly admit that he did not do his homework. In my early years of teaching I would harangue the student about responsibility and discipline; but I discovered that correcting behavior in this manner has little effect. Experience has taught me a better approach. Now I see these sorts of classroom episodes differently. They are teachable moments.

When irresponsibility rears its head, I am convinced it is well worth my time to pull the student aside and get at the nub. It is worth investing the time to review the previous evening’s timeline, and together with the student, identify the moment of decision when ignoring homework became an option. That is, “At what point in time did you throw off self-control and opt for an activity that was more pleasurable, something that gave immediate gratification. Invariably the child can tell me exactly when this fateful decision occurred the previous night and why it occurred. Without much prompting, he can tell me what went through his head when he made his decision.

As we come to a mutual understanding of events that convinced him to throw off self-control, I usually conclude there is little reason to scold or punish. After all, temptation is temptation, whether we are children or adults. If a person has goals, he or she will always face choices that require self-control. Sometimes we make the right decision, other times we give in to the temptation. Yet if we understand what happened at the moment of decision, if we understand what drove us to make a bad choice, then there is a greater possibility when a similar challenge arises we will choose rightly.

Self-control is achieved little-by-little through deliberate reflection. It can be developed if we take the time to guide children through the thought process that results in self-control and the attainment of one’s goals.

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