Using Games to Teach Self-Control

I will never forget the first day when I picked my son up from daycare. He was just over 5 months old, and they had him sitting in a wooden box that was covered in carpet.

I was totally confused by this set-up when the daycare teacher informed me that they were having him practice sitting up.

It had not really occurred to me that this was something he would practice- I kind of assumed that he would just find the core strength to hold himself up at some point.

Since that time, I have considered using games to teach self-control and essential skills.

As a psychologist, you can imagine that my list of essential skills is pretty different from the basics. I tend to use games that teach discipline, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and impulse control.

A 2010 study by Graziano, Calkins, and Keane found that emotion regulation and inhibitory control/reward sensitivity were predictive of pediatric obesity, and a 2015 study by Schmitt et al demonstrated that self-regulation increased academic achievement.

Lucky for all of us, these skills can be practiced and learned. Here are the self-control games that we invented and refined in the Daley house over the past 10+ years.

5 Self-Control Games to Teach Your Children

1. Statue

This self-control game is utilized while waiting at checkout lines or any time that we need to have everybody stay still for a little while.

We invented this at Trader Joe’s because the stores tend to be pretty tight on space, particularly at the checkouts, and the three kids seem to be in everyone’s way. Luckily, they also have free lollipops near the checkout, so the reward is easily accessible as well.

Rules of the game are simple- stay still as a statue, back against a wall of whatever display is nearest, and no one moves. If you hold statue until I am done checking out, the free lollipop is all yours!

There often are some muffled giggles and sliding around that I overlook, because this requires some pretty solid behavioral inhibition.

2. Quiet Game

We practice silent game in the car, whenever the bickering or overall storytelling has gotten to be too obnoxious. Anyone can initiate the quiet game, but it is up to the parent to determine who won and what the reward will be.

What is a little more challenging with this game is the fact that there will be a winner and losers, which means that there will also be an opportunity to practice distress tolerance? My go-to reward is DJ for the next song in the car, which has proven to be a good incentive.

The game starts with “Quiet game starting now,” and then the kids try to hold silence as long as is possible. It ends when the last person to crack finally starts to talk, which often can buy me up to 5 whole minutes of no talking in the car. When I was a kid, my parents (unsuccessfully) tried to pay me to be silent!

3. Alone

We practice this skill every once in a while because one of my daughters tends to struggle with being alone. It has a pretty simple premise- we will practice being alone with “nothing to do” for 10-30 minutes.

For most young kids, you can imagine that they can sustain one minute per year of age, then add on time as the minutes get easier, but the goal is to allow them to be successful early. We transition to something fun (TV show, kitchen dance party) once the practice has been completed.

4. Choose Your Own Adventure Walk

My youngest daughter and I came up with this game when she was in her last year of preschool. I was not working on Fridays, so would pick her up from preschool and we would come up with an adventure for our time together.

The way that the game works is that she picks the direction we go in, as we walk around the neighborhood. She also decides how fast or slow we go, and whether or not we do any silly types of walking.

We engaged with our senses- identifying things we see, hear, smell, feel, even taste if she navigated us to TCBY.

The skills that are mastered here are pretty great- learning sense of direction, mindfulness of surroundings, and practicing curiosity. She learned how to get us out and then back home, and also tended to talk through the whole experience.

5. Delay of Gratification

I developed this game out of a need to try to help the kids prioritize their constant demands for stuff. A typical issue is that we will be shopping and some amazing trinket will catch someone’s eye, and they need it now.

There are times when I just want to get it because it might seem like it fills a need or is on sale, but the challenge is that the more that I satisfy their wants, the more entitled they have become.

After a particularly big meltdown over a pair of shoes, I decided that we need a waiting period for the wants. Of all of the games, this one probably feels less like a game to the children, but it has worked to allow them to practice delaying the wants in the moment.

Basically, we identify that the item is desired, and decide how long they will still want the item- anywhere from 1-4 weeks. The more expensive it is, the longer the delay needs to be.

Obviously, the game is only engaging if you are actually willing and able to buy the item, but it teaches them to navigate the urge to have something in the moment. If the item is forgotten before the time period expires, then it goes away.

If they still want it when the delay has expired, then they get the item. I don’t check in with them to see if they still want it- they have to bring it up. Surprisingly, my youngest child is the most consistent winner of this game!

Have fun teaching your kids some regulation! Lastly, know that you will have to practice some of your own soothing and regulation- modeling is one of the best skills we have!

Click here to read more articles by Dr. Kristin Daley!

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