Got Self-control?

by Ted Cunningham

It was easy for me to stay away from snack-size candy bars. But when they came out with the minis, I was in trouble. How can something so small be bad for you? When I walk by a dish of minis, my heart starts racing. It's only after I have five or six empty wrappers in my pocket that I realize I have overindulged. I am reminded of self-control — and my lack of it — every time I pass by our bathroom scale.

Self-control is the discipline of delaying impulse or gratification for a greater purpose or cause. When we exercise self-control, we are saying "no" for the sake of a bigger and better "yes." We are trading something in the here and now for something greater in the future.

We teach our children self-control when we make them eat their vegetables before dessert. We implore our teens to practice self-control for several years after puberty in order to honor marriage (Hebrews 13:4). Yet the greatest reason believers practice self-control is because we choose Christ over the world (Mark 8:36-37).

Our desires tempt us every day. The Bible says, "For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world" (1 John 2:16).

In order to develop self-control, we must first be honest with ourselves about our weaknesses. Each one of us is different. Some of us are tempted by overeating, others by greed or gossip. By being aware of what tempts us, we can take our struggles to God. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and we have self-control when we "keep in step" with the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). He empowers us to overcome temptation.

The age-specific activities and discussions below are designed to help your family explore the importance of self-control. When teaching your children about this topic, be sure to focus on what they gain, not what they lose. As believers, we practice self-control because we know, love and choose Jesus.

Key Points

  • Self-control is the discipline of delaying impulse or gratification for a greater purpose.

  • The ultimate goal for practicing self-control is to choose Christ over the world.

  • The power to overcome temptation and practice self-control comes from God's Spirit.

Family Memory Verse

Proverbs 25:28
"Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control."

Scripture Study

For a closer look at what the Bible says about self-control, read these passages:

  • Galatians 5:16-25

  • Titus 2:11-14

  • 1 Peter 1:13-15

  • 1 John 2:15-17

Copyright © 2011 by Ted Cunningham. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


Preschool Activity
School-Age Activity
Tween Activity
Time With Your Teen
More Family Devotions


Preschool Activity

You can use simple play to help your child prepare for those times when he needs to exercise self-control.

Before mealtime, shake out the sillies by dancing and wiggling together. Then take a deep, calming breath; exhale slowly. This tells your child that mealtime is a calm time when he should remain seated. Use this opportunity to explain what self-control means — choosing to do the right thing even when you don't really want to. Afterward, be active again as you clean up together.

Help your child learn self-control in public places by practicing at home. Pretend your living room is a church, library or school, and shake out your sillies before entering. Then take a deep breath, enter the room and sit down quietly. For an age-appropriate length of time, listen to a story or Bible lesson.

Work out a signal to use if your child gets restless when he should be calm. For example: Tap his arm twice with one finger, and touch your chin when he looks at you. Smile at him as you take a deep, calming breath together.

Donna Brennan

Copyright © 2011 by Donna Brennan. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


School-age Activity

To illustrate self-control for your child, take a small package of M&M's or other bite-size candy and pour the contents into a bowl. Remove one piece of candy and place it in a second bowl.

Before dinner, offer your child a treat. Explain that he has a choice: He can either choose to eat the single candy now or he can choose to wait until after dinner and enjoy a full bowl of candy. Help him choose to wait. Later, after he's finished the treat, ask your child if he feels it was worth the wait.

Explain to your child that self-control begins with controlling your "self." Everyone has a "Mr. Self" or "Miss Self." Mr. Self hates to be patient. Miss Self doesn't think about tomorrow; she wants as much as she can get today. But God tells us that sometimes we have to wait. He knows that is hard for us, but He promises it will be worth it (Isaiah 30:18). Ask your child to think of times when self-control is difficult but worth the effort.

—Marty Machowski

Copyright © 2011 by Marty Machowski. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


Tween Activity

Use this activity to help your tween learn how to recognize and overcome temptation. Over several days, have your tween jot down examples of tempting ads as he watches TV, passes billboards or notices in-store promotions. Let him know you will do the same. Your lists might include ads for junk food, must-see movies, fad clothing or anything else that's enticing. Then get together with your child to share your lists.

Have your tween tell what was most tempting to him and why. Talk about how giving in to temptations now might cause us to give up something better in the future. Brainstorm examples such as spending money on candy instead of saving it for something more meaningful. Explain how self-control allows us to say "no" to something in the moment in favor of a greater "yes" in the future.

Once your tween understands how easy it is to be tempted, role-play the part of a friend who lacks self-control — someone who gossips, skips class or watches movies that he knows he shouldn't. Ask your child how she will respond when encountering this behavior. How will she avoid the temptation to give in or take part? This exercise will help your child see how temptations are veiled in everyday interactions. End by reading 1 Corinthians 10:13 as an assurance that, even though temptation is all around us, God will help us exercise self-control.

—Carol L. Duff

Copyright © 2011 by Carol L. Duff. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


Time With Your Teen

An important goal in the teen years is to help adolescents make that tough transition from external constraints (parental control) to internal boundaries (self-control). Limits on screen time, cellphone use, clothing choices and driving privileges all come down to a parent's desire to see teens make wise choices.

Teaching your teen how to choose wisely means helping him focus on God's best for his life rather than his desire for the moment. Because choices often have more obvious consequences during the teen years, your teen can begin to recognize the benefits of self-control in daily life.

Take time to examine a few pop culture icons with your teen. You can browse headlines online or grab a magazine off the newsstand. Be careful not to judge harshly or lecture your teen about cultural influences. This time together is simply a mutual review of public choices and consequences as you ask the question, "How could self-control have made a positive difference in that person's life?"

After discussing cultural examples where self-control would have been beneficial, express how the family environment is a great place to learn self-control, both for teens and parents. Discuss the benefits of practicing self-control when you drive, when you eat, when you shop, when you're online.

In what ways might your home be different if parents and teens committed to 30 days of self-control? Why not try this as an experiment. Journal about this 30-day adventure, tracking what you gave up in the moment and what you see as the long-term gain.

Take heart — the transition from external constraints to internal boundaries may be rocky at times, but the Holy Spirit can equip teens with the self-control they need to choose God's best for their lives (Galatians 5:22-23).

—Pam Woody

These articles first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com.


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