Teaching Children the Skill of Self-Mastery

Defining the Term

Before looking for ways to develop the fine art of self-control in our children, it may help to find a common definition for this character trait. When we say self-control we often mean the ability to be quiet or stop throwing a temper tantrum, but the more important aspect of self-control is self-mastery

One way to distinguish between these two terms is reflected in the timing involved. As referenced above, self-control tends to refer to a moment in which we should act in a proper or controlled manner. Self-mastery, on the other hand, refers more to spreading that control over an extended period, ideally a life time, during which one is working to make their total life meaningful and successful. In summary, the active use of self-mastery is the process or condition under which we handle all the things in life that are outside of our control. It’s the way we move ourselves forward in spite of motivations or conditions that push us in a backward direction.

Michael D. Pollack, in an article titled The Secret to a Happier, Healthier, More Prosperous Life, describes self-mastery this way:

“It’s the ability to set a course of action and keep moving forward no matter how hard it gets or how unmotivated you feel.  It’s the ability to recognize and overcome your negative habits, so that you can intentionally create the life you have imagined.”

The website Love or Above in an article titled Change Your Life with Self-Mastery explains it this way:

“Self-mastery gives you control over the one thing you CAN control in any situation: yourself. It allows you to move toward your goals with discipline, persistence and focus. It helps you control emotional impulses and make decisions based on rational thinking instead of heightened emotions.”

Mind Tools, the website that supports the development of excellent career skills, outlines the importance of self-mastery this way:

“When you have developed self-mastery, you have the ability to control yourself in all situations, and you move forward consciously and steadily towards your goals. You know your purpose, and you have the self-discipline needed to do things in a deliberate, focused, and honorable way.”

So, both of these qualities – self-control and self-mastery – are very important to teach to our children. Self-control is the ability to think logically and to the point of being able to make choices consistent with our short-term well being (in the moment). Self-mastery is making the choices needed to achieve our long-range goals in spite of difficulties and push backs along the way (“over a life time”). Helping them understand the importance of getting past this moment of temptation or poor judgment is essential to their ability to look a longer range goals that will maximize the impact and benefits of the personal interests that they possess.

Pressures on the Art of Self-Mastery

Free Thinking.  It would be difficult to pinpoint the exact date, but self-mastery has slowly been degraded as a valuable skill in America by some deceptive ideas surrounding moral behavior. For instance, sometime in the 50s and 60s, it became extremely un-cool to think everyone should not express themselves in any way they liked. If you like it, do it! This philosophy propelled many individuals to go out willy-nilly to do whatever they liked, anywhere they liked, with (or without) anyone they liked, for as long as they liked. 

Keeping Up with the Jones.  We all want things and, for many of us, this desire for material possessions is due to the need we feel to be viewed as successful by our friends and neighbors. The new house, the new car, the new clothes are simply ways that we fill this need. Clearly, there is a strong need for self-mastery if we want to live our life the way we want to live it without undue pressures and influence from those around us.

Science Made Things EasierPartly because science began to step into the shoes of control, there were things people could do seemingly without any natural consequences. Pills began to replace the need for self-mastery.

  • A pill was invented that claimed to metabolize food more efficiently, so that we didn’t need to control our eating habits.
  • Another pill was developed that controlled birth so that we didn’t need to control our sexual habits.
  • A pill was developed that made us sleep, and another that made us alert. People literally took pills to stay awake for days, and then popped a different pill to sleep for three days.

Advertising Makes Us Want ItInto this vacuum left by reducing the necessity for self-mastery as an important human skill, businesses have turned increasingly to media and the internet to bombard us with messages targeting our appetites, our desire to buy that new car, our need for the latest fashion and dozens of other temptations that pass our way daily. Buy more! Spend more! Eat more! Drink more! The act of consumerism, for many, has become the master.

These pressures, and many others with similar impact, have led many of us to not place a high value on controlling consequences through self-mastery. As we increasingly fail to see or feel the need for self-mastery, the less our life takes on the unique qualities that we possess and the more we become just like the people around us.

Self-Mastery: Teaching the Practice to Your Children

  • To teach self-mastery, start with the Victor Frankl story (or one similar to it)…

Victor Frankl, a WWII prison camp survivor and psychologist, observed that despite all the terrible tortures of camp life-near starvation, cold, cramped quarters, lack of shoes or clothing, physical beatings, and daily risk of death—one freedom was left in the human spirit: the freedom to choose one’s response to the circumstances. His belief, writings and example clearly revealed, using today’s terms that two wrongs don’t make a right. He believed that what you chose to do was a totally separate choice that you could make, one that was seldom justified by the actions of the other party.

This is the height of self-mastery. You cannot control or see what happens next, but you are free to decide how you will react to what happens next. If you are in control of yourself – a self-master if you will – you are not likely to be thrown off by the unexpected. Instead, you are more likely to take your time and decide how you should act or react to the situation. If you are not familiar with the Victor Frankl story, get on the internet and so some reading and research so that, not only will you understand the point of his teaching, but that you can effectively explain it to your children as well.

Granted, the older the child the easier time they will have seeing and understanding the point of separating the choice from the other person’s actions or other events. Nevertheless, you should start early helping your children to understand that they have a choice – they can decide how they will act, and not let the other person control their actions for them.


  • To teach self-mastery, teach your children the benefits of good eating…

Probably one of the best and most easily understood areas for teaching self-mastery is food and eating. Obviously, a daily activity for all of us, this is an area where children can practice and develop their self-mastery skills every day.  And, there is a great need for more children to learn self-mastery in this way. According to the CDC, Center for Disease Control, over one-third of the children in the U.S. are either overweight or obese.

Self-mastery means that you can choose to not feed your appetites all that they desire. A person with self-mastery can decide to delay gratification, or even deny gratification for his/her own higher good or for the good of others. One of the best ways to get this point across – and induce more self-mastery on the part of your children – is to explain to them all of the health problems that resulting from overweight/obese conditions including high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and many other conditions. This information is easily found on the internet – so do some health research and explain these things to your children.

Teaching self-mastery with food carries over into other important areas as well. A child taught the skill of self-mastery with food is also not as easily pressured by peers to try drugs, to drink and drive, or even to drink at all. Teens equipped with self-mastery skills can laugh off peer pressure because they know what the important goals are and have learned – from you – about the natural consequences of such activities. 


  • To teach self-mastery, help your children understand that temper flairs serve no benefit…

One sign of a lack of self-mastery is the way people behave when they do not get their way. Many people have exchanged control and manipulation of their environments for self-mastery, and it becomes quite obvious when they swear and scream and cut people off in traffic that they have not mastered themselves. Adult temper tantrums are not positive modeling. 

When you drive down the road with your children, model self-mastery by honoring the speed limit and keeping your judgment of other drivers G-rated. Can you control what is happening in traffic? No. Can you control how you react to it? Absolutely!


  • To teach self-mastery, carefully explain the importance of hard work and the focus of that work…

When you discuss a potential work life with your children, let them know that their options in this regard are closely connected (directly proportional) to the choices they make. If they exercise both self-control and self-mastery, they will have a lot more choices available to them. If they make poor choices, over time their choices will become much more limited or not exist at all. As indicated in more detail below, guide them in these conversations to the types of work that correspond to the personal interests that they have. The child will have to make the ultimate work choice, but your job is to help them understand the importance of tying this choice to the interests that they have.


  • To teach self-mastery, provide your children provide your children with insights about financial management and the importance of long-range financial planning…

Practice temperance in your spending and budgeting and explain it to your children. When they want something, explore all the reasons they want it. Examine whether social pressure is at the bottom of the desire. Ask them what about this thing will make them happy. Then allow them to practice self-mastery by saving and waiting for it.

Whether you are very wealthy or very poor it is important to impart the idea that things are for use. Money is not to love, it is to use. What use is there in the things you want or need? What things can you give away to others that no longer serve a purpose for you? Generosity is at the heart of self-mastery, because the appetites no longer have control. Sometimes the wealthiest people are the least generous because it is difficult to be generous when you think you are always starving.


  • To teach self-mastery, help your children think through the topic of living a life and as part of these discussions to start to establish their real interests, career possibilities and what they want to accomplish with their life…

This may be the most important factor in helping a child develop and maintain the art of self-mastery. When we can see where we want to go and understand what we really have a desire to do, it becomes much easier to avoid side trips and to continue to make the choices required to get there. 

It may take you months, more likely years to work through this discussion and evaluation with your child. And, this work should involve related activities as well. You will want to take them to places and have them do things that will help them in their investigative work. For example, if they are showing a strong interest in medicine, arrange multiple conversations with local doctors, nurses and hospital officials. This way they can fully explore the many alternatives that they have in entering this field of work. This is a youthful journey of discovery and the better tour guide you are, the sooner your child will find his calling in this world.

In Summary

Teaching your children self-mastery will protect them from peer pressure and build strength and resiliency into their characters. It will help them develop and build a life based on their own personal interests and skills and be much freer from the influence of others. Self-mastery is, in effect, a tool that they can use not only to discover themselves, but, more importantly, to develop that unique individual that resides in them and resides in all of us.

In summary, by teaching self-mastery you are teaching the importance of personal choice. You are helping your children understand that as they grow and mature they will gain more and more control of their life. At some point, they will have 100% of that control subject to the real world that will indeed touch their life in many ways. The way they develop and use this control is through self-mastery – more specifically through the choices they make. Teach them that being a real self master and an effective choice maker will determine the extent to which they attain a full and meaningful life.

“The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours – it is an amazing journey – and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.” 
Bob Moawad

Written by Heidi Densmore

©Copyright 2014 Good Choices Good Life, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“The height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure, by his self-abandonment. There is no limitation in either direction. And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish a dominion over himself will have no dominion over others. He who masters himself shall be king.” Unknown