I Can’t Help Myself: Kids and Impulse Control
By Ann Brown
I’ve been listening to The Four Tops. If you don’t know what I am talking about, if you do not know who The Four Tops are, if you are not familiar with their music, well, then, I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe a time-out. Oh wait, I don’t believe in them. And I certainly cannot spank you. So, for now, I will give you “what am I going to do with you” shrug and make a note to myself to meet with you later, privately, to give you a quick tutorial in Motown music and to remind you what is truly cool.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch,” they are singing, “you know that I love you….I can’t help myself…”
Can’t help myself has been a topic in parenting class recently. In behavior speak, this is called impulse control. Which is the stuff young kids lack.
Let’s not even get to kids yet. Judging by the empty box of Wheat Thins and Manchego cheese next to my computer (we will overlook the half-empty wine bottle, but we both know it’s here), I would add that impulse control is something that 56-year-olds aren’t exactly full of, either.
Sure, I told myself that, say, twelve Wheat Thins were enough, and that a few slivers of cheese is all I need (and that opening the second bottle of wine was just asking for trouble) but when push came to shove, my impulses kicked the derriere of my control.
Impulse control is a wily thing. You have it one minute, and the next minute you are completely consumed by other forces. You tell yourself that you are giving up caffeine, that it makes you jittery and gives you ulcers, and the next minute you are face down on the floor with yesterday’s funky old coffee filter stuck to you lips, sucking in the old grounds.
And that’s adult behavior.
Impulse control in the hands of a preschooler, well, you can just imagine. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine. You are living it. Want some wine?
Preschoolers know a lot of stuff. It amazes us how much they know. It also confuses us, however, because we tend to mix up “knowing” with “being able to retrieve the information at appropriate situations and overpower impulse with intellect.” Easy mix-up.
What does your kid know already? Let’s just name a few things:
Don’t run into the street.
Don’t unbuckle your car seat.
Don’t pull the cat’s tail.
Don’t sneak candy from the Halloween bowl.
Don’t take Mommy’s lipstick and practice making “M”s and “N”s on the wall.
Don’t stick stuff up your nose.
Don’t pick your nose. Or anyone else’s nose.
Don’t scream while you are waiting for the toast. Screaming doesn’t make the toaster go any faster.
Don’t throw your new toy on the ground just because I didn’t open the stupid package the way you wanted me to.
There is no wrong way to open a stupid package, anyway.
Don’t hit your sister even though she’s been bugging you all morning.
Get the idea?
Now…how many of those things does your child NEVER EVER EVER do?
I am presuming none of you answered that your child never does any of those things. And if one of you did answer that way, then why on earth are you sitting around reading an article on parenting? Go. Get up, get dressed and go accept your Most Awesome Parent award at the Kodak Theater. And don’t expect any of us to be your friend anymore. There is such a thing as being too awesome, you know.
When we rely on their impulse control to keep our kids in line, we are not only setting ourselves – and our kids – up for failure, we are not respecting the reasonable expectations of their developmental stages. And, we are going to be feeling and projecting a lot of disappointment, exasperation, and frustration towards our child. And sooner or later, that comes back to bite us.
So, instead, we need to give our children appropriate doses of power, of choice, or frustration; we need to set them up for success. And in doing so, we get the added benefit of not feeling like our heads are going to explode any minute.
A single example:
Your child runs away from you. You say to him, calmly, while he is still in his car seat, in the parking lot, “now remember, you need to be safe and not run from me.” Or you say, “remember to wait for me at the corner so I can cross the street with you” or, “Listen, you little snot-nosed rug rat, I’ve HAD it with your running away” (for the purposes of this article I am not judging).
Your child listens, nods, agrees; she can even recite back to you why it isn’t safe to run away from Mommy or Daddy. You unbuckle the car seat. She bolts.
Yes, she bolts. You yell. You chase. You grab. You lecture. She promises. You reiterate, for good measure. She is contrite (or exultant, high on her victory). You hug.
Then she bolts again.
There is another way, my friends.
Do not give your child the opportunity to fail, to defy you, to get hit by a car. You can do this while still building his confidence that he is capable of making good choices (even when he isn’t making them right now).
You pull into the parking lot and you say to your child, “I am going to help you remember not to run away because it is my job to keep you safe.”
Try not to say too much more than that because after a few paragraphs, we are pretty much nothing but white noise to our kids. And spouses.
And then you unbuckle the car seat, help your child out and NEVER EVER LET GO OF HIS HAND UNTIL YOU GET INTO THE BUILDING.
He will protest. He will negotiate. He will yell. And you will look at him with compassionate detachment and shrug. If you feel an overwhelming need to talk and if he is listening, you can say, “we can try it again tomorrow (or next month, whatever) to see if you are ready to keep yourself safe.”
It’s not a magic strategy. It’s not flawless, but it works. I promise you that it works.
Now, pass the wine and cheese over here. And open up a new box of Wheat Thins, wouldja? And don’t be giving me that “what about your impulse control?” look. I’ve had a hard day.