It is clearly important to develop self-understanding and healthy self-esteem. But one of the most important skills that we develop in childhood is the ability to control aspects of the self. Without this ability we would have great difficulty accomplishing anything, regardless of how good we might feel about ourselves! Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and control our own behavior, emotions, or thoughts, altering them in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes the abilities to inhibit first responses, to resist interference from irrelevant stimulation, and to persist on relevant tasks even when we don't enjoy them.
For example, when our son Will was 7, he liked to play Monopoly Junior with his sisters. Will had developed reasonable self-regulation skills for his age, so he usually did not give in to the temptation to take money from his sisters' piles when they weren't looking (inhibiting first responses). Most of the time, he was able to ignore their incessant singing of "Jingle Bells" as he pondered whether to buy a property (resisting interference). And when he started to feel irritated by the singing, he could calm himself by focusing on the game (emotional regulation). Finally, though he might not do so on his own, Will did help clean up the game and put it away when we asked, even though he didn't really want to (persisting on less enjoyable tasks). Can you envision what this scene would be like if Will and his sisters had few or no self-regulation skills? We prefer to not think about it!
Mature self-regulation requires several sophisticated cognitive skills. These include awareness of the demands of any given situation; consistent monitoring of our own behavior, thoughts, and strategies; consideration of how successfully we are meeting the demands of the situation; and the ability to change aspects of our current functioning as needed to fit the situation or to accomplish a goal. Aspects of self-regulation correlate with various positive outcomes for children and adolescents—including better academic performance, problem-solving skills, and reading comprehension; more satisfying interactions with peers; higher levels of intrinsic motivation, self-worth, perceived competence, self-efficacy, moral cognition, and moral conduct; fewer behavior problems; and lower levels of psychopathology (e.g., depression) (Eisenberg, Smith, Sadovsky, & Spinrad, 2004; Grolnick, Kurowski, & Gurland, 1999; Howse, Lange, Farran, & Boyles, 2003; Kochanska, Murray, & Coy, 1997; Ryan, Connell, & Grolnick, 1992).
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