Sharing ToysWhen my children were toddlers, we spent a lot of time grappling with two ideas. First, that you can’t get what you want all the time. And second, that what you do has an impact on the world around you.

As a mom and an early childhood development researcher, I have devoted my career to studying how children learn best. Spoiler alert: It isn’t always in a classroom. In fact, some of the most important lessons our children learn are from their parents about two essential social skills: self-control and consequences.

These social skills are more than the ability to communicate. The ability to self-regulate and to think critically about their actions can help kids adapt, collaborate, and be successful in today’s world. The best part is, children can gain these important skills during everyday interactions. Here are some practical tips to help toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners develop self-control and understand the consequences of behavior.

How to Help Your Child Develop Self-Control

As many parents know, children often demand what they want and when they want it, with little consideration for how their actions might impact others. But to be happy, harmonious, caring members of our families, learning self-control is essential. For a child, this challenging skill can be learned in tiny stages that increase in complexity over time. It might begin with learning when to listen and when to speak, or how to behave in a respectful manner with other people.

  • Toddler: Although they have short attention spans, toddlers can learn to wait with other children as they transition between activities. To help them learn how to pass the time patiently, try concrete activities like this one: Singing the ABCs three times in a row while they wait in line.
  • Preschool: When 3- and 4-year-olds play together, they can practice waiting their turn. After all, we don’t usually stock our children’s playrooms with multiple versions of the same toy! Try this: Encourage taking turns with different colored crayons during coloring time.
  • Kindergarten: As kids age, they begin to demonstrate their understanding of what they need to do — and why — by learning the rules. By kindergarten, 5- and 6-year-olds should be able to explain the rules and expectations for school and home, and set steps they must follow to complete various activities. To encourage this type of understanding, try this: At bedtime ask your child what things they need to do to get ready for bed. Or play a game together (such as Red Light, Green Light), and ask your child to explain to you the rules of the game.

How to Help Your Child Understand Consequences

Of all the skills our children need to learn for success in today’s world, this might be the most important. When we help children understand the consequences of behaviors — including how our actions affect other people and their emotions — we can teach them to make good future choices and can help them empathize with others. Here are a few ways to teach children about consequences:

  • Toddler: Although they’re still grappling their own emotions, toddlers can learn that their actions and words affect others’ feelings (and that they should care!). To help bring a toddler out of their me-centered world, it can be helpful to use an example they’re familiar with. Try this: During story time, ask your child how one character made the other feel.
  • Preschool: After children have learned that their words and actions can impact others, you can add more nuance to this skill by helping them to understand how they can intentionally choose actions and words that positively affect others. Try this: Demonstrate expressing a negative emotion in a positive way by saying (with a smile!), “Mommy doesn’t want an apple right now. When you share your apple with Mommy, it is very nice of you, but she says no, thank you.” Ask your child how this makes them feel. Then ask your preschooler how they would tell a friend that they don’t like something, or that they don’t want to play right now, in a nice way, so they don’t hurt the other’s feelings.
  • Kindergarten: Once your child sees that their actions directly impact others, they can begin to understand that the rules they are learning at home and school are tied to consequences. What happens when we don’t use self-control? How does it affect others when we shout out the answer in class or leave a mess? To help your child understand rules and their consequences, ask your kindergartener to describe the why behind the rules. Try this: Ask your kindergartener what the rules are for sharing at school and what happens if they don’t share.
About Deb Weber, PhD

Deb Weber, PhD, is Director of Early Childhood Development Research at Fisher-Price, bringing 20 years of experience in helping create the best possible products for young children, and an advanced education in early childhood development, to her work.

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