The second episode of this fascinating series examined how and when children learn impulse control, and the difference between right and wrong. It is well documented that children under the age of six find it difficult to manage their impulsive urges because the part of the brain which controls this is under-developed at that stage. This week, a group of children under 5 were left unsupervised in a sweet shop and told not to touch or eat the merchandise. Unsurprisingly, they broke the touching rule after 1 minute and started munching sweets after 20! A group of 6 and 7 year olds refrained from eating until an adult “plant” came in and ate some sweets, after which it was a “free for all”. Both groups quickly admitted breaking the rules when questioned about it afterwards, but with some encouragement, the older group concocted a lie to explain what had happened when the shop owner returned. What can we learn from this?
Most of us would not expect very young children to resist such obvious temptation, but how often are we surprised when our youngsters have tantrums and meltdowns when they can’t have their own way? Should we expect a calm and rational response? It’s crucial to understand the stage of development our child is at and this may not always match their chronological age. Emotional immaturity which is normal in children aged 7 and under means that pro-social behaviours such as sharing with peers and waiting for a turn can be frustrating and lead to tears and even aggressive outbursts.
How can we help our children learn self- control? One thing is certain- children copy what they see! This was illustrated perfectly in the programme when the children felt they had been given permission to break the rule once an adult had modelled that behaviour. How often do we expect our children to adhere to a rule and then break it ourselves, wondering why they can’t behave better? The fact that children test rules and boundaries is a natural part of growing up. We can help them develop self-control if we demonstrate some ourselves!