Self-Control

I was seeing someone the other day and we were talking about observing her thinking. She told me she avoided this because she was frightened - imagine what it would be like to be scared of your own mind. However, I don’t think she is the only one - many people dislike introspection, or looking at what their minds are doing, but this I think is largely their thoughts often seem to be out of control.  Many personal and relationships problem arise because of lack of control – alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence – but these are just the big, and obvious ones. If we looked more closely we would find that many of our issues arise from lack of self-control or self-discipline.


If you have read The Focused Child, you might remember we discussed the Walter Mischel experiment, from which we learn that the capacity early in life for self-control affects academic success later, and is a better predictor of success than any other measure. One area where the capacity for self-control significantly impacts on teenagers is sex. You may also recall that we recommend to parents that they encourage their children to delay sexual experience until after they have finished school. There are three reasons for this:


1. What they learn: Early sexual experiences happen when young people are immature, and yet they learn a lot from each other and from the internet, where pornography is rife. They are not then associating sex with values or commitment, but with casual interactions with ‘buddies’. Instead of sex being an expression of love and deep intimacy, it is a sensate experience leading to gratification with few boundaries. It can easily become an obsession, with masturbation and frequent intercourse being what pre-occupies the mind.


2. This is the second issue – sex can become a major distraction. Instead of school being primarily a place for learning, it becomes a social hub where the boys are checking out the girls and vice versa. Even in the classroom, the dynamics of sexually charged relationships can interfere with learning. At home, the mind can easily stray into sexual fantasies rather than the school work that needs to be done.


3. The dissipation of energies into the various expressions of sex means that young people miss an opportunity to develop strong, disciplined minds. This undermines their capacity to achieve their full potential. In the Focused Child we also wrote about the importance of sleep for academic success right through into university. If young people are out late, engaging in sexual experiments, they are less likely to be getting the hours of sleep they need, especially if their relationships with the opposite sex are negative or disappointing. The diversion of energy at this stage in life can undermine their health.


Mischel found that self-control can be learned. Whilst teaching children strategies to control their impulses is helpful, their utilization relies on conscious effort from the child. A more powerful way of imparting knowledge of self-control is through example. If parents are disciplined in various areas of their own lives children observe this and imbibe something of the personal qualities their pare