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We ain't got no self-control

A few years ago, I was waitressing in a restaurant when some acquaintances came in for a meal. During the ordering process, their young son realized the restaurant was out of his favorite food. He proceeded to fling himself onto the floor in a temper tantrum. It was the classic routine – flailing arms and legs, wails of frustration, the whole nine yards.

Now this is not outside the realms of typical toddler behavior, except this boy wasn’t a toddler. He was 9 years old at the time. He didn’t suffer from autism or other behavioral conditions. He was merely spoiled rotten and throwing a fit because the restaurant didn’t have his favorite dish. The parents ignored their son until the manager intervened – and then the parents got mad because, after all, it was the manager’s fault that the restaurant was out of their son’s favorite dish.

Compare this to the 1-year-old son of some neighbors. I was visiting one day when the boy was in a particularly whiney mood. He wanted his mother to pick him up and cuddle him. She told him she would only pick him up if he stopped his whining. The boy walked away, still fussing. Three times he came back to his mother and wanted to be picked up, and three times she told him he would have to stop whining first. The fourth time, he walked up, stopped his whining, and lifted up his arms. Immediately the mother picked him up and snuggled.

Which child do you suppose will grow up with some measure of self-control?

What is self-control, anyway? And why is it important?

Quite simply, self-control is the ability to regulate our personal impulses and reactions. It’s the realization that behavior (not moods or emotions, but behavior is often a choice. Self-control is often referred to as self-regulation.

Why is it important? The answer is eerily simple: If you can’t control yourself, someone else must control you.

We know we must control our young children to keep them from running into the street or engaging in other dangerous activities. Most parents instinctively know they must teach their children to control themselves (self-regulation) because Mom and Dad won’t always be there to keep Junior from doing something unsafe.

But while most parents teach their children self-regulation for life-and-death matters (such as not running into the street), far too many parents fall down on the job when it comes to other issues of impulse control. If I had to pick a single behavioral quality I want my kids to acquire during their growing-up years, it would be self-control.

When you think about it, a lack of self-control has led to many of the problems our country is currently facing. Overspending, overeating, drinking or drug use, flash mobs, theft, lack of work ethic, abortion, STDs … the list is endless.

What causes a lack of self-control? Medical issues (such as autism) aside, there are a variety of causes. Fathers are often the ones who strictly reinforce proper behavior, so fatherless children frequently grow up in defiance of their mothers’ attempts to rein them in. Parents who do not require self-control in young children (“But his tantrums are so cute!”) have a harder time instilling it in older children. (“He’s just expressing himself – what’s your problem?”) No consequences mean no control. By the time kids hit their teenage years, a lack of self-regulation can often result in highly destructive behaviors such as sexual activity, drinking and drug use.

And we all know what happens when adults are not capable of self-regulation.

It’s clear that America as a whole has suffered because of a lack of individual self-control.  When we can’t (or won’t) control our own behavior, government will often step in and control that behavior for us. When the Sandra Flukes of this country lobby for increased government funding of birth control, what they’re really saying is they don’t have the self-control to keep their legs together, their pants zipped or to pay for their own choices. They don’t want to take responsibility for their own out-of-control behavior and want the taxpayer to cough up money for contraceptives or abortions or welfare.

In this respect, government is complicit with the national loss of self-control. For the sins of the few, the government happily steps in and controls the behavior of the many. By protecting people from the consequences of their own actions, the government teaches that self-control is unnecessary because government will control you for you.

It’s a self-feeding cycle, too. The government cultivates people without self-control, who then turn around and vote for more legislation to cover whatever it is they won’t control in their own lives, thus surrendering yet more incentive to control themselves.

There are those who applaud this loss of self-control, preferring instead to revel in their “freedom of expression” and taunting those who control their own behavior as “repressed” or “puritanical.” These are the people who like the fact that government has become the controller, and welcome public funding of their inability to self-regulate. They welcome government mandates for how much power we can use, what kinds of cars we can drive, what foods we can eat, what medical care options we have, how we can educate our children. In short, there’s virtually nothing the government wouldn’t happily take over to force us to control ourselves in compliance with its agenda.

Can you now see the connection between a toddler having a temper tantrum and our current massive federal bureaucracy? These days, we expect better behavior from our dogs than from our citizens.

Until individual Americans recapture both the interest and the ability to control themselves, we will sink further into despotism and tyranny. It begins with teaching a toddler to stop whining. It continues with adults keeping sexual activity within the bounds of matrimony. And it ends with a nation of mature, responsible citizens who throw off the chains of oppressive taxation and nitpicky regulations by a government determined to control everyone’s behavior.

Progressives often complain that constitutionalists want to control everyone’s behavior. Wrong. True constitutionalists simply do not want to pay for everyone’s behavior. Stop making us fund your choices. Refusing to fund something is not the same as controlling it.

Now stop whining and get to work.