Entrepreneurs

Want to Raise Kids with Greater Self-Control? Science Says Children Whose Parents Play With Them a Very Specific Way Build More Self-Discipline

First, the definition: “The ability to control oneself, in particular one’s emotions and desires or the expression of them in one’s behavior, especially in difficult situations.”

Now the word: Self-control.

Controlling your disappointment, displeasure, or even anger. Overcoming setbacks. Dealing with short-term failure. Pushing through discomfort to keep moving forward. All are necessary qualities for entrepreneurs. 

Since eight out of 10 entrepreneurs say they would actively encourage their children to be entrepreneurs, clearly helping kids develop self-control is important. Helping them learn to delay gratification. Modeling self-discipline. Providing structure and consequences. 

And, oddly enough, playing with them, especially when they’re very young.

But with a twist: Science says don’t be afraid to be a little rough.

According to a 2020 meta-analysis of 78 different research papers spanning four decades of research published in Developmental Review, “fathers’ play in the early years can positively contribute to children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes.”

(Don’t worry; we’ll talk about moms in a moment.)

Why do dads play such a key role? According to the researchers, fathers tend to spend a significant proportion of their time with children before the age of 3 engaging in playful interactions, often in the form of “physical play such as rough-and-tumble.”

Like tickling. Chasing. Piggy-back rides. Bouncing and swinging. The occasional toss in the air.

In short, relatively physical play. The kind of play that tends to lead to (albeit to our in-the-moment chagrin) the occasional bump or knock or “ouchie.”

All of which can lead to developing greater self-control.

According to the researchers:

Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation.

You might have to control your strength, learn when things have gone too far — or maybe your father steps on your toe by accident and you feel cross!

It’s a safe environment in which children can practice how to respond. If they react the wrong way, they might get told off, but it’s not the end of the world — and next time they might remember to behave differently.

Assumed gender norms aside, who does the playing isn’t really important. The nature of the play is what matters; the researchers acknowledge (awfully big of them) that mothers can also “support” physical play with their young children.

And, by extension, allow some physical play. Jumping up and down on the couch, for example, may not be your idea of acceptable behavior, but the odd mishap or two that results can help your child develop greater self-control.

Because, as the Stoics say, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. That requires facing situations requiring you to respond — even at a very young age. 

None of which means you should get more aggressive with your kids.

But it does mean, if you want them to develop greater self-control, that a little boisterous and rowdy play — again, within reason — might actually be good for them.

As the researchers write, “Children are likely to benefit most if they are given different ways to play and interact.”

Because that gives them different situations to react to.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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