No is a loving word: Instilling Temperance in Children

This is the talk I gave to parents about instilling self-control/temperance in our children. I heavily relied on works by James Stenson, Fernando Corominas, Andrew Mullins and of course our hard-earned experiences as parents.

Trust you find it helpful.


As parents we all want nothing but the best for our children. Most of us will give them the best education we can afford, often times with great sacrifices involved. Some of us will enrol them in sports or other enrichment classes, taking great lengths to drive them around, adjusting our own family’s schedules to fit their extracurricular activities. We’ll probably bring them for overseas travel during school holidays for them to see and explore what the other world has to offer. We want to give them everything we can possibly and humanly give.

The question remains. What really is best for our children, for your child?

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In James Stenson’s wise words: “Remember that you are raising adults not children. Think of what your children will be, not just what they will do”. Whenever we think and plan our children’s future, we should not only limit it to professional or career goals. We have to also envision what kind of character our children should possess.

We have to raise our children to become loving spouses and involved parents not just highly skilled professionals.

There are many successful and highly-paid lawyers, doctors, engineers, bankers whose private lives are sadly in a mess. They are either divorced, doesn’t get along with their children, cannot commit to a long term relationship, have substance abuse issues, etc. We have to remember that no success in one’s profession will ever compensate for a failure at home.

Bottom line is, we have to teach our children virtues, we have to form their great character strengths. After all, happiness is the reward of virtue. Virtues are good habits done repeatedly, freely and with effort. There are four cardinal virtues, one of them is temperance (the rest are prudence, justice and fortitude). All other virtues hinges on these four.

What is temperance?
Temperance is tantamount to self-mastery- a self-mastery that is achieved when one is aware that “not everything we experience in our bodies and souls should be given free reign. Not everything that we can do should be done.

Now the question is when do we teach them this virtue of temperance. The answer is as early as possible. In Fernando Corominas’ book, Bringing up Children Today, he discussed Sensitive Periods in great lengths. Sensitive periods are like “windows of opportunity” in the growth of a child when it is easiest and most favorable to learn or acquire a certain skill or virtue. By the age of 12, the Golden Age of learning finishes, 80% of the Sensitive Periods have finished. According to the Sensitive Period, a child begins to internalize temperance between the ages of 12-16. But sufficient groundwork has to be done prior to their teenage years. A teenager doesn’t instantly become temperate. It starts as early as infant hood.

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You either pay now while they are young, impressionable and malleable or pay later when they are older and more difficult to manage. Either way you have to pay.

We also have to motivate our children correctly in the acquisition of this virtue. There are three levels of motivation:
(1) Extrinsic motivation (to have) comes from the need to have more material things (money, food, clothing, etc)
(2) Intrinsic motivation (to know) comes from the need to learn, to increase one’s knowledge and to find satisfaction in one’s work. Here, the intellect comes into play.
(3) Transcendent motivation (to give) arises from the need to contribute something or to give oneself, to do something for someone in need. What distinguishes this type of motivation is that action is carried out to satisfy the needs of someone other than the one performing the action.

Extrinsic motivation for acquiring temperance–> a child will be rewarded with money or lollies whenever they don’t watch tv and use their time to study well;
Intrinsic motivation –> can be “you will learn more, you will make good use of your time, you will be appreciated more by others;
Transcendent motivation –> draw on the magnanimous ideals that fill their hearts like, you will make your mother happy, your dad loves it so much whenever you read/study, give some of their savings to the poor, help out a friend in need.

We have to motivate our children at the highest level – transcendent motivation. We have to teach them that their actions should be motivated by love.

Either we imbue a child’s upbringing with a deep love for others or the default setting is selfishness. -Andrew Mullins, author of Parenting for Character

Now how do we teach them temperance?

1. In food/mealtimes: They eat whatever is served (of course a mother knows what the children want to eat by trial and error). As much as possible, no snacking between mealtimes for obvious reasons that you are cutting down their appetite for the main meal. What’s the point in making your life harder right? If they get hungry in between, ask them to eat fruits. Minimize chips, soft drinks and too much sweets (lollies, ice cream) for obvious reasons that they are unhealthy. We don’t want our kids to develop unhealthy eating habits early on.

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2. Good use of time – the less TV or screen (laptop, Ipad, internet, iphone, etc) time the better. They will learn other skills which will help them more in life like reading, writing, building (Legos), arts, sports, cooking, doing household chores. Most of the time, unbridled use of television dissolves family life. The family ends up watching a show instead of talking and sharing their day with each other.

3. Make your children wait for something they want, and if possible make them earn it. Waiting and earning are part of responsible adult life, which is what you are after. Let the children learn the difference between wants and needs.

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Remember the Marshmallow Test?

4. It is imperative to say NO at a very young age. Let them accept that NO is an answer. This will be good for them since they will learn to wait and strengthen their will against immediate gratification. Your children must hear it from time to time in order to acquire self-control. Children who never experience loving parental denial cannot form the concept of self-denial–and this can later lead to disaster.

Always remember that your authority as a parent is natural, not elective. Meaning, you don’t have to be always popular with your children. You have the right to be obeyed.

5. Give them jobs. Teach them responsibility early on.

We humans are born to serve, not to shop. Children do not grow up when they can take care of themselves; they really grow up when they can take care of others and want to.

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6. Example is a good teacher. If you live temperate lives, your children will absorb that. You can’t restrict your child from using the internet or IPAD and be on Facebook the whole time. It’s hard to control a child from eating chips in between meals if he/she sees you eating it as well right?

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7. Don’t baby your teenager. The sooner you treat your son as a man, the sooner he will be. Don’t do the thinking for them. Expect responsibility. Don’t let your son or daughter out of consequences they have brought on themselves. They have to pay their debts, make the apology, finish their assignment. Don’t fight their battles for them.

8. Show that your values bring you happiness. There is no point telling them that temperance is good and complain and nag all the time about life’s difficulties, or be perennially cranky or critical. Temperance must be seen to bring happiness not anxiety or stress. Children should sense that mum isn’t cranky at rush hour every morning but cheerful and positive about life. They have to sense that mum is happier to be with them than to be in an office.

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While I was in Singapore, there was a family gathering held together with Fr Cormac Burke, a well-known canon-lawyer and priest who specializes in marriage and family.

One of the mothers with 4 children asked him “What should we, as parents, give our children?” She mentioned that their neighbor sent their children to swimming, piano, English language lessons, so on and so forth. They can’t seem to keep up anymore.

Fr Burke had only one answer. “Give your child another sibling. ” That gift will enrich your child all his life and he will learn to think of others.

Whenever we are tempted to give more than what our children need, whenever we want our children not to lose out, we have to contemplate the Holy Family. That family neither had money, comfort nor prestige but they were happy. Very happy. They lived only to make the other’s life happier, to serve the others.

I think this is how families should be.

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