The Importance of Self-Control

by Pastor Jack Hyles

(Chapter 2 from Dr. Hyle's excellent book, How To Rear Children)


In the previous chapter we found that the developing of the proper character is the supreme part of rearing a child. Now the most important part of developing the right character is the developing of self-control. Self-control is the will conquering attention. It is the appetite being satisfied only when the will allows. It is the will conquering the appetite rather than the appetite conquering the will.

When children are infants we often place things over their cribs such as little birds that move abut with slightest wind. The child's attention is captured by these little birds. His will is a slave to his attention. He does not decide at what he will look. He looks at that thing which is most attractive to him. In other words, he is affected by an external stimulus. Self-control comes when the will takes over and decides what a person does. His actions are decided by his will rather than by the appeal to the senses. Unless self- control is developed a person will decide to do in life whatever is most attractive and most pleasant. This, of course, leads to shipwreck.

A person walks down the street and smells popcorn. He cannot resist. His appetite decides what he eats. The attractiveness of the popcorn on the outside has made his decision for him. The disciplined person eats popcorn only when he needs it. His will controls his appetite. He decides what he looks at; he decides what he eats; he decides where he goes; he has control of himself. He is not a slave to appetites, pleasures, and passions.

How can one train a child to exercise such self-control? This is done by developing something on the inside that becomes more attractive than that which is on the outside. Then more pleasure is gotten inwardly by resistance than outwardly by yielding. For example, my son, David, is an athlete. During basketball season he does not drink carbonated drinks nor eat pastry. This is not to say that chocolate pie is not attractive. Quite to the contrary, it is most attractive, but there is something on the inside that is more attractive - the satisfaction of making the team, of being in good condition, and of pleasing the coach! Hence, the inward pleasure has overcome the competitive attractiveness of external pleasure. He has developed self-control. His will decides whether or not he eats chocolate pie. Hence, in this matter he is in control of himself. He is not a beast; he is a man. He derives more pleasure inwardly by not eating the chocolate pie than he would derive outwardly by eating it.

As the parent develops such self-control within the child he must make the inward attractiveness so great that it is worth the hurt of being deprived the satisfying of the appetite. The pleasure of self-control must be greater than the pleasure of indulgence. If this can be done, the person is in control of his body rather than a slave to it.

One must then seek to find these things that can be more appealing. One is that of a goal. Lead the child to have in his mind the pleasure of attaining a certain goal. Teach him to let nothing stop him in attaining this desired end. For example, suppose a boy is saving to by a new bicycle. The wise parent will remind him over and over again of the desired goal so that no immediate appetite can rise up and capture some of his money. He continues to save toward this end even when the county fair comes to town. The boy looks at the county fair. He finds it so appealing to the outside that it competes with the inner desire to save for a bicycle. If he is trained properly, he will not sacrifice the reaching of the desired goal for a brief pleasure. The child should be led to have in his mind the pleasure of attaining a goal, and this internal satisfaction should be greater to him than the appeal from the sight of the bright lights, the smell of good food, etc. of the county fair.

Another internal competition is that of punishment. Punishment for wrong-doing is a necessary and vital part of rearing a child and developing his character. The punishment should always hurt more than the pleasure feels good. For example, a young man stays out thirty minutes late with his girlfriend and all he gets is a scolding or a spanking. Now what young man wouldn't be willing to trade a spanking for thirty minutes with a lovely girl! The wise parent will take the car away from the boy, ground him, and not let him be with his girlfriend for one week, Hence, he is trading an entire week for thirty minutes. This is not a good trade and he will be on time henceforth, for the punishment has brought more displeasure than the offense brought pleasure. In the mind of the boy that particular appetite will always have associated with it the punishment that was inflicted.

It might be wise for the parent to list the different appetites from which he wants his child to refrain. He then should make very plain to the child what the punishment is so the child will know whether or not refraining will be worth it.

I once had a black cat who loved to jump on the bathroom stove and put her paws in the lavatory while I shaved. Winter came and the stove was turned on. The black cat jumped on the stove! In fact, the cat kept on jumping, and never again did she get on the stove! Even in the summertime she would look at the stove with suspicion but she would never chance it. The joy of watching me shave was not great enough for the chance she would have to take. This may be transferred into a child's subconscious until the fear of punishment will be so great that the attractiveness of the wrong will be lessened.

Another internal competitor to outward attractions is that of pleasing and/or not hurting someone who cares. Here is a very strong internal pleasure or displeasure. If a close relationship can be developed between the parents and the child, the child will have an intense desire to please them. If he feels much displeasure and pain when he displeases Mom and Dad, then the external attraction will be limited by the thought of pleasing those he loves. When I was a boy in grade school my report cards were marked either "S" for satisfactory, "U" for unsatisfactory or "N" for needs improvement. "N" was neither real good nor real bad. One time I came home with an "N" in conduct. My mother cried and cried and cried. You would have thought I had fallen into some terrible sin. Lamentation and tears filled the house. During the next grading period every time I would start to whisper to the boys around me I could see my weeping mother and I would be a good boy. With that picture in my mind I worked hard for the entire period and sure enough, I received an "S" for satisfactory in conduct. When I brought the "S" home she was so happy she danced for joy and jumped for glee. You would have thought I had discovered a cure for leukemia. She made it such a big thing that when I was tempted to misbehave in school I could see her both rejoicing and sorrowing. The desire to see her pleased overcame the desire to talk to the boy behind me. Hence, the attractiveness of the internal feeling exceeded the attractiveness of the external stimulus and I became a pretty good kid.

Still another of these competitors against external pleasantness is the desire for praise. This is an important factor in rearing children. It is vital, however, that the parents praise character, not talent! It is more important that a child be praised for being punctual than for singing a song and that he be praised more for being honest or working hard than for displaying some talent. Character properly praised can do much to give the child control over his will so that he decides what appetites he fills and when he fills them.

The following paragraphs will list some general statements concerning self-control.

1. The child should be taught not to sacrifice a present good for a permanent one. Reference was previously made to a child's saving to buy a bicycle. The county fair came along and he faced a present pleasure versus a future pleasure. The word "no" should immediately have popped into his mind. Yes, the excitement and pleasures of the county fair are many, but there are many more pleasures spread over the bicycle. As Dr. Bob Jones, Sr. used to say, "Never sacrifice the future on the altar of the present."

2. The child should not be punished because he displeases the parents nor should he be rewarded simply on the basis of the parents' pleasure. In other words, the parent should not be guilty of the same offense from which he is trying to wean the child. The offense is that of responding because of external pleasure. This does not mean the child should not try to please the parent. It simply means that the reward should come because of the child's disciplining his will, and the punishment should come because the child does wrong. Children are often punished for restlessness as if it were an offense of the will. The mother who says to a child, "I am sick and tired of hearing our cry," and punishes the child because she is sick and tired is acting unwisely. Just as the child is being trained to use his will instead of external pleasures, so the wise parent will use his will in the punishment of a child and not external pleasures or displeasures derived from the child's behaviour.

3. The child should be taught that "ought" and "can" are synonymous. Someone has said, "You can do that what you ought to do." Emerson wrote, "So nigh is grandeur to our dust, so near is God to man, when duty whispers, `Lo thou must,' the youth replies, `I can.' "This is just another way to say that the wise young person is taught that he can do what he ought to do.

My mother used to have me repeat the following three words over and over again, "I ought, I can, I will. I ought, I can, I will. I ought, I can, I will. I ought, I can, I will." Charles Sumner said, "Three things are necessary for success: first, backbone; second, backbone; third, backbone." An old proverb says, "Kites ride against the wind, not with the wind." Another say, "Only dead fish float with the stream; live ones swim against it."

4. Children should be taught to say "No!" A child should stand in front of a mirror and practice saying "no" in many ways.

Gertrude Atherton wrote the novel, RULER OF THE KINGS. In it a rich man sent his boy to be reared in a poor home. The person rearing him required the boy to say "no" twenty times the first thing in the morning and twenty times the last thing at night.

Plutarch said that the people of Asia became vassals largely because they could not say "no."

My mother would get a bottle, put water in it, and pretend it was an alcoholic beverage. She then would say to me, "Son, would you like a bottle of beer?" My answer was to be an emphatic "NO!" Again she would say, "Son, how about a bottle of beer?" I would answer, "No!" Then she would say, "Son, do you want some wine?" My answer was "no." She would repeat the aforementioned questions many times so that later in life when I was really offered liquor I had associated the word "no" with beer, whiskey, wine, etc. so long that I would again say "No!" She did the same thing with cigarettes. She would pretend that she had a package of cigarettes and would ask me if I would like to have one. I would say, "No!" This was repeated many times. The wise parent will list the things from which he wants his child to refrain and will train the child to associate the word "no" with this particular thing. My mother would hold up a liquor ad and say, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no." She would then tear it up, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it, all the time saying, "No, no, no, no, no, no." She would then give me a liquor ad. I would say, "No, no, no, no, no, no." Then I would tear it up, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it saying, "No, no, no, no, no, no."

5. Children should be taught not to let the crowd influence them in any direction. Many fine parents have taught their children not to run with the crowd and their motives are good ones. This, however, is not a good, hard and fast rule. It would be better for the child to be taught not to let the crowd influence him either way. Theodore Munger said, "Suspect the crowd, resist it." The first part of that statement is unquestionably right. The last part is not always a good criterion. Suppose the crowd is going to church. Suppose the crowd is not drinking. Hence, it seems that it would be better for the child to be taught that he should not go because the crowd goes nor stay because the crowd stays. He should hold the scaled of right and wrong in his own hands and should decide what he does by his will. When a person refuses to go with the crowd just because the crowd is going, he is not acting from his own will. Again an external stimulus is the motivating him. The crowd should have nothing to do with his decision.

Someone has said, "When I assent without thought to what another person says, when I do as he wishes without reasoning for myself, there is but one person present; I am nobody."

I have said to my son many times, "Son, be your own man. do not let the crowd influence you either way." Though it is true that the crowd is usually wrong, and the Christian is often in the minority, it is not always the case. There will be times when a child would be wrong to refrain from what they are doing. The basis of judgment, however, should be on the matter of right and wrong, not who is doing it.

6. Teach the child not to fear unpopularity. It is not what others will think of me , but what I will think of myself. One should not fear being unpopular with others, but being unpopular with himself.

7. The parents should be consistent with punishment. The same offense should be punished in the same way so the child can learn a pattern of behavior. Suppose little Johnny stayed five minutes too long at Billy's house and his mother says, "Johnny, you can't play with Billy now for two days." Then the next time Johnny is late from Billy's house he should receive the same punishment, so it is registered in his mind that five minutes too much time with Billy will cause him to forfeit two days with Billy. Hence, the same offense has the same punishment. Johnny will be able to learn a pattern of behavior by knowing what the punishment is for each offense. Year ago I sat down and listed the most common offenses committed by the children. I then listed the punishment that I felt each offense warranted. After months of receiving the same punishment for each offense, the children began to associate certain wrongs with certain types of punishment which allowed them to weigh the price subconsciously before committing the crime. Far too many children do not know what the price is. One time the parent will spank a child for a particular wrong. The next time the child is sent to his room; the next time he is scolded for the same offense. Perhaps later the parent will overlook it completely until in the mind of the child there is developed a willingness to gamble, "Maybe this will be the time that Mom will do nothing or simply give me a lecture." When tempted he is often willing to chance it, for there is always that possibility that he will get by with it. If, however, he knew that without exception he would pay a certain penalty, and if that penalty brought more discomfort and displeasure than the wrong brought pleasure, he would realize there was not a chance in the world that he could get by without being punished. This leads to another very important thing in child rearing.

8. Always make the pain of the punishment far in excess of the pleasure of the wrong: For example, a boy comes in thirty minutes late from a date. He could have gotten home on time but he wanted to spend thirty minutes more with his girlfriend. he is scolded or maybe even spanked. Now what boy wouldn't be willing to get a spanking for thirty minutes more with his girlfriend? What boy wouldn't be willing to get a lecture in exchange for thirty extra exciting minutes? In such a case the parent might well forbid the boy from seeing his girlfriend for a week. When this punishment is meted out consistently for this offense, the boy will realize that he will always have to trade an entire week for thirty minutes if he stays out too late.

In the aforementioned punishment there is also another important observation that should be made. The punishment should often involve the withdrawal of the thing which has been done in excess. In other words, the son should not be refused permission to be with a boy friend for a week. Most teenage boys would be glad to trade a week with a boyfriend for thirty minutes with a girlfriend, but grounding him from seeing the girl will hit him where it hurts and will do him more good.

9. Punishment should not be given because the parent is annoyed, but rather, because right has been offended and wrong has been committed. In other words, the child should not be punished because of personality weaknesses, but rather because of character weaknesses. Far too many of us demonstrate the opposite of what we are teaching! We teach our children to be motivated by the will rather than by external stimuli, but then we punish them strictly on the basis of external stimuli, such as when we are annoyed with their actions, etc.

10. Self-control in eating should be strongly emphasized from infancy. Parents are largely to blame for the appetites of their children. Instead of providing food on the basis of nourishing the body, building up tissue, supplying energy, etc., the supply food highly spiced that provokes appetite instead of satisfying it. Such food makes the child sluggish and dull instead of active, healthy, and vigorous. Hence, the child is taught he should eat what tastes good instead of what is good for him. If a family overfeeds a valuable horse, they are considered cruel. The purpose of food is to nourish the body. When eating is done just for the pleasure that results from the gratification of taste, the end is overeating, Overeating causes the body to perform its functions poorly and causes the person to be a slave to his appetites. The Apostle Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 10:31 that whatever we eat should be to the glory of God.

Breeders of fine horses and dogs pay more attention to proper feeding than the average mother does for her children. Chickens are fed more carefully than children. From early childhood a child should be taught self-control in eating. He should be taught that the purpose of eating is to make the body healthy. Eating is to the body what filling the tank with gasoline is to the car. The body will run no better than its fuel allows. One does not buy gasoline for his car according to how it smells or how pretty it is; he buys it according to the performance it give to the car. This same rule should apply to our bodies.

There is more, however, to the control of one's appetite than health alone. The desire for food is one of the few appetites that are developed early in life. Hence, if a child is taught self-control concerning eating, he will become master of his own will, and when other appetites are developed he will be able to exercise self-control in them also by transferring the character he has developed in to other areas of temptation. Why not feed the child apples, grapes, oranges, etc. instead of candy; fruit juices instead of carbonated drinks; nut, such as almonds and pecans, in the place of "snick-snacks"? Good food can be as delicious to the child as bad food, and proper diet can be as tasty as improper diet if the parent leads the child to develop tastes for that which is healthy and nourishing.

11. The will should control the temper. Controlling the temper means that one's will prevents expression of his inner feelings and thereby prevents reaction. Anger should be allowed or disallowed by the will. It is not wrong to become angry; however, it is wrong to become angry because we are annoyed or because we have been wronged. Usually our anger does not come from a hatred of wrong, but because we think we have been wronged. Hence, it comes from outside stimuli and this is why we "fly off the handle." Children should be taught to hate injustice and wrong. They must learn to be angry not because they have been wronged, but because someone whom they love has done wrong. Oftentimes a person who exhibits his temper will make such statements as, "I just get it off my chest and get it over with." This sounds very good but the truth is, it simply makes it easier for passion to follow the same path and to seek the same relief the next time his is offended. Hence, a habit is formed because the person has given way to anger.

One reason anger is so deadly is that it defeats the one who is angry rather than the one who is the object of the anger. Someone said to me recently, "I was so mad I didn't know what I was doing." Such uncontrollable temper leads to murder, bad health, broken friendships, and perhaps worst of all, the breakdown of self-control which may be transferred into other areas until restraint is almost impossible and anger is an automatic reaction which divorces a person's actions from his will. Because of this a child should be taught to count to ten before he gives in to his feelings, for the time that is gained in counting to ten or in the thought of the ritual gives opportunity to reason before hasty action takes place. It gives the will time to collect itself in order to gain supremacy over the reaction. The wise man said, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." Another has said, "Govern your passions or they will govern you." Franklin said, "What error is begun in anger ends in shame." Jefferson said, "When angry count ten; when very angry, one- hundred."

12. Children should be taught to finish a task. Each job should be done completely and well. Never should the parent finish the task for the child. No food should be left on the plate and no satisfaction should be allowed for a job that goes unfinished. Napoleon once said, "Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools." Hence, a task that is begun should be finished regardless of how difficult it is. The child who is allowed to let another finish a job that he starts does not develop self-control and later is found bouncing from one job to another, one school to another, etc.

This is especially true when a task is an unpleasant one. Teach him to fix his mind on the goal. Teach him the joy of accomplishing the goal and finishing the task. Teach him the shame of a task unfinished. Let him understand that he is being conquered when he does not finish an unpleasant task. Let the joy of doing a job well overcome the drudgery of the work itself.

I know one parent who listed all of the tasks that were unpleasant to his child. The parent led the child to call the tasks "Goliath" and himself "David." The child was taught to get angry at the tasks and refuse to be conquered by Goliath. When the child conquered a task the parent praised him, as David was praised when he defeated Goliath.

Hence, work should be a challenge and perseverance should be a habit. This would teach the child to work hard, which in essence is a fruit of self-control. Fortunate is the child who is made to work hard.

My Uncle Harvey, who passed away several years ago, was a wealthy man. He had one son whom he required to mow yards and do other hard tasks of labor in order to get spending money. Unwise critics would look and say, "Poor son! There is that mean old father with all that money who makes his boy work so hard." Wise people, however, would say, "What a fortunate son to have a father who realiz3s what makes character!" He was giving his son more than money. He was teaching him habits, perseverance, the need for hard work, and other attributes that made much money for the son in later years.

In summary, character is habit and habit is formed by practice. When Becky, David, Linda, and Cindy were little children I listed all of the things I wanted them to do and do well. Such things as how to answer the telephone properly, how to meet friends, how react when an adult enters the room, etc. were listed. Each evening we would practice one of these things. The boy would practice walking like a boy and the girls would practice walking like girls. They would practice sitting, standing, being graceful, being kind, etc. We would act out a sample situation and repeat it over and over again until certain reflexes would cause the child to respond automatically to certain stimuli. May God help us to teach our children to have self-control.

INDEX


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