When we have incorporated [self-mastery] this virtue in our character, we more easily control our temper, we are able to delay gratification by a conscious decision, and we can say no to ourselves so as to check our passions when they are not good for us or when they harm others.
Our focus is on raising children with rich emotional lives, but at all times capable of retaining self-mastery. When we have incorporated this virtue in our character, we more easily control our temper, we are able to delay gratification by a conscious decision, and we can say no to ourselves so as to check our passions when they are not good for us or when they harm others. We learn to be content with pleasures in moderation. We grow in patience and exercise habits of courtesy and good manners, and generous habits of service. The virtue even assists us in overcoming our reluctance to make apologies when they are called for, allowing us to build up the essential life-skill of being able to restore relationships. Seligman emphasizes respect for others as a key aspect of temperance, which he describes as ‘the appropriate and moderate expression of … appetites and wants. The temperate person does not suppress motives, but waits for opportunities to satisfy them so that harm is not done to self or others.’
Seligman M (2002) Authentic Happiness (NY: Free Press) p152
As for every other virtue, a key strategy in helping children acquire this virtue is to model it ourselves. Children are more prone to impulse control problems when they witness poor self-management in others: of temper, impatience, curiosity, quickness to sit in judgement of others, laziness, wasting time, disorder, even of infidelity and substance abuse. A different facet may manifest in a child, but at the core it is self-control itself that has not been modeled.
The first years, when emotions are already ‘wiring‘, are so important. Researchers place the most critical period at 10-18 months. A child’s experiences of parental affection, and of a teacher’s loving encouragement are crucial for development. The brains of newborn infants are wiring simple emotion, stress, and contentment circuits in the brain. The development of other emotional circuitry continues: at eight or nine years of age complex feelings of envy and empathy develop their pathways.
We must teach the children in our care to understand emotion and passion. Let us raise them to read their own emotions, to harness positive emotional responses to their studies, in their community service, in their family life, in their support for their peers. And let us provide them with the wherewithal to limit the destructive effects of fear, hatred, and envy in their self-management. Let us do our best to raise and educate children who not only understand the psychology of emotions, passions and feelings but whose default setting is to look to their intelligence for guidance, not simply to follow their feelings or to do things simply because they are enjoyable.
Openness to guidance is crucial. We can all get down over mistakes. Let us raise children who do not lapse into these emotion driven responses. We all need correction and critical feedback to become better persons. Seligman reminds us that failing and negative feedback, handled well, are not bad things.