I want it right now!

Dog with treat on nose

At various points in our professional careers, we’ve worked extensively with college students on academic probation (generally the result of earning below a 2.0/C grade point average).  We all might like to think that would never be our child, but it happens all the time to otherwise intelligent, capable students.  Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that push even the best students off track (think extended illnesses, death of a close family member, involvement in an unhealthy relationship, etc.).  However, the reasons most students perform poorly their first year of college almost always include some element of a lack of self-control.

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We’ve all been there.  That moment when we want something immediately…but indulging in it may have negative consequences in the future.  These are usually small choices that can eventually snowball into serious consequences, (i.e. failing to say no to junk food and yes to exercise results in poor health; too many purchases on the credit card results in debt that takes years to pay with interest; etc.).  And here’s the thing.  Giving our kids everything they want when they want it results in young adults who don’t know how to exercise self-control…because they haven’t had enough practice.

How do we define self-control?  An independent decision to delay instant gratification with the purpose of achieving long-term gain

While a single decision will not typically result in academic probation for college students, a pattern of choices certainly can.  Here are some of the things that tend to trip up college students when they should be engaging in healthy activities like studying, sleeping, eating, and exercising:

  • Going out with friends
  • Playing video games
  • Binging on Netflix and YouTube videos
  • Being involved in too many “good” activities, (i.e. volunteering, working, etc.)
  • Visiting home too often (Sorry to break your hearts, parents, but it’s not healthy)

We can’t expect our kids to always go against human nature and make perfectly perfect choices all the time.  That’s not realistic for anyone, including ourselves.  However, we can help them build the habit of self-control, so the overall results of their pattern of choices moves them toward their long-term goals.

Here are five ways we can teach our kids about self-control well before they enter college.

1. Talk about it.

One of the key steps in building the habit of self-control is recognizing those critical moments where we must choose between instant gratification and long-term gain.  Highlight these moments for your kids.  Explain how their choice options can either propel them forward or hold them back.  Talk about some of your own choices, good and bad, and what the consequences have been.

2. Reward acts of self-control.

Tell your kids when you catch them practicing self-control.  Be specific about what they are doing well and why it matters.  Think about what they love and reward them accordingly.  This could be anything from a personal card, a favorite treat, or a day of fun with a family member or friend.

3. Give them opportunities to practice.

Refrain from jumping in at every turn to tell your kids what the right paths and choices are.  Give them space to listen for their own voice.  Knowing that they have practiced self-control without being specifically told to do so is incredibly empowering and helps them build self-confidence.  You can also work with them to set a realistic goal that they can use as an impetus for practicing self-control.

4. Correct them when you see wrong choices.

Especially as your children move into adolescence, it’s important to set boundaries and address any concerning choices and behaviors.  Set expectations and teach self-discipline, so they can practice this well before leaving for college.  Do this along with recognizing and rewarding the positives.

5. Allow them to experience the consequences when they don’t make good choices.

Henry Ford has been quoted as saying that failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, but this time more intelligently.  Let your kids fail.  It will smarten them up!  Resist the urge to fix everything for your children.  Let them feel the sting when they don’t practice self-control.  You cannot, and should not, protect them from every discomfort.  When you try, you are robbing them of a chance to develop into better and more capable human beings.  You are also stunting their ability to constructively handle failure in the future.  This is not a pretty look when they get to college.

The ability to exercise self-control is a skill that our kids can learn, and they can use it for a lifetime.  It will allow them to be guided by what they ultimately want out of life, and that’s a beautiful thing!

About author


Lori Smith and Scott Smith are higher education professionals with a combined 30 years experience working with college students. We also happen to be married to one another and are raising our own potential future college student.

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