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Teaching Kids Basic Life Skills: Spontaneity and Self-Control

Kids need to be spontaneous and also need to learn self-control—so how do you explain, or better still, model, the difference?

I have a happy dance. No, don’t go tell everyone you know, just keep it to yourself, OK? But I do, and it manifests itself whenever things are going particularly well for me or anyone I cheer for, when I have accomplished something important to me, or when I am in a silly mood.

My wife is tolerant and gleefully expectant that on a given occasional outburst, I will once again stub my toe on a chair or bang me knee against a countertop. My kids, who know about Mad Hatters, Wacky Wednesdays, and other such, know that it is going to happen unexpectedly and usually join in as a sanctioned crazy release. This is me, modeling spontaneity successfully.

But I failed miserably at providing an example of modeled self-control, an everyday example that would resonate. So I gave my kids the next best thing, a story from my own youth. I gave them my one-episode example contrasting positive self-control and negative spontaneity.

When I was a senior in high school I was the captain of my soccer team and an uncharacteristic BMOC because I made a point of socializing with the less-popular or liked kids. On one occasion, I was invited to play a pick-up game of soccer in the enormous backyard of a small, geeky kid I had long known and who rarely got picked to play the game at recess when we were smaller, let alone have the chance to play with varsity players once in high school.

He invited a number of other similarly unskilled player-friends over and that left me as the only true athlete among them. So, I spent two hours allowing my non-buddies to score goals and basically win every competition we had. My host, who would graduate with me the next week, was leaving town soon thereafter and moving to the opposite side of the country from where I was going to college. So, this was my last chance to do some good with him.

This resonated with my son who is a talented athlete himself, and you could see the light bulb shining above his head as I spoke. Self-control became knowable. Then I continued with the story.

“This went on all afternoon, until my host challenged me to take a penalty shot while he played goalie. I refused, since I took the penalties for our varsity team and had a fierce shot." But he insisted, as did the chorus of friends who now believed they had taught me a lesson by beating me at the pick-up game. To them, it was time to prove once and forever that they were good enough to be on the team that had not even allowed them to try out.

As you can imagine youthful, spontaneous ego won over developing self-control and the faux duel ensued. That I scored despite my friend’s valiant effort, and put an end to the afternoon’s charade and restored the teenage cosmos, was a given, but I had no idea what the cost was going to be.

I kicked the ball so hard it broke my friend’s right arm just below the wrist on the way past him for the score. It required surgery and delayed his family’s non-refundable-ticket departure by over a week. They spent that time in a hotel, since their home had been sold and the move-out day was 48 hours after the accident.

Aside from earning that family’s ire, I also managed to undo all the good that had taken me four years and all that afternoon to build with those kids who now saw me as a bully. “A few minutes of continued self-control, instead of indulging that one spontaneous act, and imagine all the good I would have left behind,” I concluded.

I think it stuck with him.

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