From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.

Chapter 12 – SELF CONTROL

John Henry Faulk told this boyhood story to television journalist Bill Moyers:

“Boots Cooper and I used to pretend we were law-and-order men. I was a Texas Ranger and he was a United States marshal. We were both twelve years old and we rode the frontier between Momma’s back door and her henhouse. One day Momma told us there was a chicken snake in one of the hen’s nests out there, and she asked us mighty lawmen to go and execute it. We laid aside our stick horses, got a hoe, and went in. The hens were in a state of acute agitation. We had to stand on tiptoe to look in the top nests, and about the third top nest we looked in, a chicken snake looked out. I don’t know, Bill, whether you’ve ever viewed a chicken snake from a distance of six inches from the end of your nose-the damn thing looks like a boa constrictor from that distance, although it’s about the size of your finger. All of our frontier courage drained out our heelsactually, it trickled down our overall legs-and Boots and I made a new door through the henhouse wall.

“Momma came out and said,’Well, you’ve lulled me into a false sense of security. I thought I was safe from all hurt and harm and here you’ve let a chicken snake run you out of the henhouse, and a little chicken snake at that. Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.’ Boots said, ‘Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that ‘ ‘ and he’s rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time,’but they can scare you so bad it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.”‘

One of the most enduring stereotypes of males is that they should be able to control any demonstration of fear. Perhaps fearful inside, but never on the outside. Stereotypes may be distortions, more false than true, but they are powerful, nonetheless. So it isn’t surprising that some of our early memories have to do with being scared out of control. When I read Faulk’s reminiscence, it put me in mind of the time, at about age seven, I attached a generator light to my Schwinn bicycle and set out for my first ride in the dark to visit a friend. The streets that were familiar in daylight had turned very spooky, and I was more than once close to turning around and pedaling furiously back home. A frisson still tingles up my spine when I recall how scared I was.

NVhat makes Boots Cooper’s insight all the more winsome is that he has just been at play impersonating characters renowned for their courage, or ability to contain fear-rangers and marshals. But that is one thing boys do at play: rehearse, by means of repetition and trial solutions, how to master problems that are beyond their capacity in real life. One of the most pressing of these problems is how to confront danger with poise. In reality, Faulk and Cooper would have been even more terrified if a real robber had appeared at the kitchen door than they were of the chicken snake.

Three Dimensions of Control

From the moment of his birth until the moment of his death, a male is caught up in three different dimensions of control. First, he wants to control his environment so that it meets his desires adequately and promptly, from his perspective. Second, he wishes to contain to a degree tolerable to him the environment’s efforts to control him. Third, he develops internal self-control with the encouragement of the environment and for his own purposes. By “environment,” I mean not only the natural world, but also his family, his community, his school, his friends, his country, his material surroundings, his whole world.

Controlling the Environment

A boy is born without a distinct sense of separateness between himself and his immediate environment, especially his mother, but he is born with a set of lungs and vocal cords to sound the alarm when he is frustrated or uncomfortable, and he uses his instrument of complaint naturally. His awareness of separateness begins in the first year of his life, and as it develops, so does his will to control his environment as effectively as he can-both the things and the people in it. He uses every method at his command-from smiles and requests to whines, tears, and tantrums; when what he wants is within reach, he grabs it. His wishes, in the beginning, are totalistic; that is, he cannot weigh their importance against the wishes and needs of others in his environment. If his needs and wishes are not met to some minimum degree of satisfaction, he can lapse into a kind of despair at a very early age. The infant’s moods are mercurial; he may switch very quickly from one mood to another-from intently building a block tower one moment to stormy tears the next when he or someone else knocks it over, to building it again and laughing when it falls, and then fretting for food a moment later.

The script of a male’s efforts to establish a measure of control over his environment can reflect many plots and subplots. Regarding just one goal, the desire to control women, Neil Jacobson and John Gottman have described two very different patterns among the most predatory of men. They refer to these two types as the pit bulls and the cobras. “Pit bulls are great guys,” Jacobson told Jane Brody of the New York Times, “until they get into intimate relationships. 0. J. Simpson is a classic pit bull. Pit bulls confine their monstrous behavior to the women they love, acting out of emotional dependence and a fear of abandonment. Pit bulls are the stalkers, the jealous husbands and boyfriends who are charming to everyone except their wives and girlfriends.” Pit bulls, he added, are quick to see betrayal and it infuriates them. VVhen their fury explodes into violence, they appear to lose control. Because their violence grows out of a dependency they feel has been betrayed, pit bulls often portray themselves as the ones who have been victimized in the violent relationship. “0. J. Simpson said he felt like a battered husband.”

Cobras are relatively free of webs of emotional dependence, and their intended spheres of influence are not compartmentalized like the pit bulls’. They have a powerful need to be the boss, and to make sure that everyone-but particularly their wives and girlfriends-submits. They are not motivated by jealous love and dependence, but by unsentimental, antisocial attitudes. They are likely to be aggressive toward strangers and pets, as well as friends, relatives, and coworkers. lt”en they think their dominance has been challenged, cobras strike swiftly and ferociously. In a cold-blooded way, cobras may use violence to establish complete control in a relationship and then back off and maintain the dominance with verbal threats.

Pit bulls get very physiologically aroused as their fury rises, but cobras calm down internally as they become more physically or verbally assaultive. N”en the police are called to intervene in a marital situation provoked by a cobra, they often find a hysterical woman and a very calm man who explains that it was all the woman’s doing; sometimes the police accept the cobra’s story and arrest the wrong person-the woman who has been assaulted.

While the pit bull/cobra metaphor depicts a particularly extreme behavior, it does serve to demonstrate how different the psychological motivations to control may be, varying in scope from quite generalized to very narrow and compartmentalized. A little boy may be indulged and seem to himself to be getting his way much of the time, yet he may moderate his control needs as he matures. Another little boy may experience frequent failure to control his environment to his satisfaction, but his failure, rather than making him resigned or stoic, may only intensify his need and efforts to control others as he matures. One boy may appear to be flexible in his control efforts, achieving control when he can, accepting lack of control resiliently when he can’t; another little boy may be on a path to extreme rigidity on control issues, pursuing each one as though it were a life and death struggle. Every male will sometimes use control for altruistic purposes, and sometimes for selfish purposes. Temperament obviously has a large role in this, but so does the accretion of life experience interacting with temperament.

Resisting Control

Almost as soon as he is born, a boy will feel a countervailing force to his own desires. Those who are taking care of him will, in the process, inevitably try to control him in specific ways. His parents and other caregivers are going to feel happier if they can regularize his feeding schedule, get him to sleep through the night, persuade him to accept baths with relative equanimity, and eventually get him to accept toilet training as an alternative to their having to change his diapers. Others are going to regard him more positively if it appears that his daily life exhibits regularity. Much of this process, therefore, is wholly positive, and much of it is welcomed as reassuring by the infant and toddler; he flourishes knowing what to expect and how to behave. A give and take is established; he will find comfort in a structure of care.

There is, however, going to be a degree of frustration for the young male in this process as well. Caregivers are sometimes going to put tending to their own needs ahead of dealing with his. They are sometimes going to express frustration or irritation over the way he is behaving-chastising him, maybe punishing him. Siblings or playmates are going to deny him what he wants, and perhaps be aggressive toward him. Many children have to contend with caregivers who resent their responsibilities and take out their resentment on the children in their charge.

From the beginning there are some intrusions by his environment that a boy doesn’t welcome, and would fend off if he could-even things in his best interest such as immunization shots at the pediatrician’s office. So begins a lifelong dialectic between the need to be taken care of and the desire to be in charge, between dependence and autonomy. At each stage of development, the young boy will be more able to know what he wants and doesn’t want, what he likes and doesn’t like, and he can apply this knowledge to the various efforts to care for him; and at each stage it will be more apparent to him that his environment wants him to be obedient about some things.

The stage appears to be set for a long conflict of wills between a boy and his environment over the issue of control-and conflict does occur, particularly if parents and other caregivers don’t comprehend this struggle and are rigid in their attempts to take charge. But the power struggle is also moderated by the third dimension of control: self-control.


The prefacing of the word “control” with the word “self” changes its meaning entirely. Gaining self-control is a long process of learning to moderate and modulate one’s desires and goals in a way that is appropriate to one’s age and circumstances. Both caregivers and a boy himself have much to gain by his development of self-control-caregivers because every enhancement of appropriate self-control diminishes the amount of oversight and influence they need to exert, and the boy because self-control gets others off his case and also reassures him that he won’t spin impulsively out of control, at least not easily.

When this three-part process is successful, a grown man will find a reasonable balance of the three modes of control: he will have enough influence within his environment to pursue a satisfying life, but won’t exploit opportunities to dominate others in ways hurtful to them; he will have enough power to keep his environment from exploiting him in hurtful ways; and he will have enough self-control to be able to handle challenging situations thoughtfully and creatively rather than impulsively and unreflectively.

The impressive scope of this process is dramatized if we remember the situation of the newborn. He has no power, is at the mercy of his caregivers to meet every one of his needs, and has virtually no self-control. By his preschool years, however, a boy begins to assume some responsibility for the control of himself. The development of language plays a large role in this shift of responsibility. As early as age two, boys begin to use “private speech” to monitor or control their own behavior. Playing by themselves, twoor three-year-olds can be overheard giving themselves instructions, or describing or commenting on what they are doing: “I put that there,” “No, not there,” etc. Some persons continue to talk to themselves in this way in much later stages of their lives, especially if they are working on a demanding task that requires a high level of concentration. As with the first two aspects of control I’ve discussed, the term self-control is neutral, in that a male may achieve self-control in creative ways and for good purposes, or he may use his self-control for selfish or antisocial purposes. He may exhibit the rigid self-control of the zealot, or he may exhibit the resilient self-control of the compassionate person.

Temperament and Self-control

Self-control involves more than an exercise of willpower. It is not a constant from one person to another. To one boy it comes fairly easily, to another only as a struggle, all within the bounds of normal variation. Every boy’s temperament needs to be read sensitively by those responsible for his care. There are many possible combinations of temperament and frustration tolerance. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas describe a boy who had a high level of persistence, but if his concentration was interrupted in the wrong way he would immediately lose self-control.

One day in the first grade he insisted on continuing his complicated block building when it was time to move to another activity. He could not be budged, and the exasperated teacher finally swept away his carefully constructed edifice. Richard responded with loud, prolonged crying and kicking. Immediately he became the class scapegoat, the’cry baby’ and the butt of teasing. The situation went from bad to worse until he was finally transferred to another school. Here Richard made a fresh start, and his persistent efforts in the school activities brought him the approval of teachers and the friendship of his classmates….

Another disruptive incident occurred several years later. For Brotherhood Week, a poster contest was arranged, and three students from his class, not including Richard, were chosen for the contest. Richard, however, was fired with the idea and labored long and hard to make his own poster, which he proudly brought to school. His teacher construed this behavior as gross disobedience, scolded him, and tore up his poster. Predictably, Richard had a massive blowup that included throwing a book at the teacher. He was now labeled not only a disobedient child but a violent one. Again he became the school scapegoat. His self-esteem hit bottom, and he told us,’l just have a monster inside of me, and every once in a while it gets out.’

In both of these situations, an insensitive teacher is being challenged by a student she doesn’t understand very well, a student who works with fierce concentration that looks like self-control but is actually precarious. Neither of these teachers appears to have been briefed about Richard’s temperament before he arrived at their classrooms. Faced with a challenge to their authority, both teachers reacted in a provocative way guaranteed to set Richard off; they destroyed his creations in which he had invested immense care.

The second teacher had perhaps the easier challenge. He or she could have explained to Richard that since there was a contest that others won to design the school poster, it would be unfair to display his poster exactly as the winning poster was to be displayed, but the teacher could have evaluated his poster, and praised his initiative, and discussed with him some mutually satisfactory way to display his poster; the theme, brotherhood, would seem to suggest no less. If he had shown extra initiative in an academic subject, the teacher probably would have praised his effort. By turning the incident into a power struggle, and disrespecting his efforts so heartlessly, the teacher lost an opportunity to forge an alliance with the student, and turned Richard into a pariah once again.

Eliciting cooperation by every child with the routines of the class is one of the goals of a first-grade teacher, and some children inevitably resist more than others. In the earlier incident, the teacher turned Richard’s stubborn persistence into a power struggle with the kind of gesture that would make boys even less persistent than Richard angry. If she had been flexible for the moment and found a quiet moment later to talk with Richard, the incident and its very unhappy aftermath might have been averted.

A more vigorous male response against female aggression was found in one of the few large studies of boys’ and girls’ temperaments in relation to the parenting styles of their mothers and fathers. Sophia Bezirganian and Patricia Cohen noted that sons with difficult temperaments were particularly resistant to controlling strategies by their mothers. If the mothers were rigid in their expectations and punitive in their responses to misbehavior, the boys’temperaments actually worsened. Daughters didn’t experience such deteriorations in response either to their mothers or their fathers, and neither did boys’ temperaments become more difficult in response to their fathers.

The Components of Self-control

One component of self-control is the neurological capacity to delay responses to stimuli. This “hardwiring” varies considerably from child to child. In some children, the capacity is very compromised. They simply cannot delay their reactions, and punishing them for not having the capacity of a child with a different neurological inheritance is doubly cruel. Observation of a boy in the first months of his life will give a parent some clues as to the intensity of his reactions, the swiftness of his reactions, and the amount of stimulation it takes to evoke a response. Even a hardwired capacity such as this can be affected to a degree by the environment-for better or worse. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, the capacity to delay response can be markedly reduced. Signals that ordinarily would be sent in a split second to areas in the brain that allow a person to reflect on their experience and make plans to cope with it are interrupted by hyperreactive responses.

In her clinical practice as a psychologist, my wife, Carolyn, once worked with a little boy who was overwhelmed by his impulses. ‘vqen he felt he needed something, he wanted it without any delay. She remembers a day when he felt such a strong desire for a doughnut that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else until the desire was satisfied. Carolyn wanted to help him buy some time between his feeling a need and his satisfying the need.

So Carolyn made up a pretend game with him. To get the doughnut, they would have to drive to a store that sold doughnuts. Together, in fantasized play, they drove street by street to the store, parked the car, went into the store, found some doughnuts, carried them to the checkout counter, and took the doughnuts back by car to her office. Then they fantasized eating a doughnut. The little boy was fully aware that a pretend doughnut was much less satisfying than a real one. But he participated gleefully in the game and learned to use fantasy and planning as a strategy for tolerating the frustration of not getting what he wanted when he wanted it. This is an example of how one can work patiently and imaginatively with a boy to insinuate a bit of time and reflection between a stimulus and the response to it.

Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, recounted an experiment conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s. Four-year-olds were called individually into a room where a kindly man gave each a marshmallow and said the child could choose either to eat the marshmallow at once or wait for him to return from doing an errand. If the child waited, he would get an additional marshmallow when the man returned. Then the kindly man left the room, leaving the child by himself.

The children who elected to wait until the man returned-and thus earn an additional marshmallow-did all sorts of things to control their desire. Some of them covered their eyes or rested their heads on their arms so they couldn’t see the tempting marshmallow in front of them. Others sang or played games by themselves. About a third of the children grabbed the marshmallow and ate it as soon as the man left the room.

A dozen years later, the very same children, now adolescents, were tested again with more elaborate techniques. The ones who had delayed eating the marshmallow in order to get a reward were still capable of self-control. “They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties; they were self-reliant and confident, trustworthy and dependable.” The youngsters who had immediately eaten their marshmallows were more likely to be seen as shying away from social contacts, to be stubborn and indecisive, to be easily upset by frustrations, to think of themselves as unworthy, to become immobilized by stress, to be mistrustful or prone to jealousy, to overreact with a sharp temper.” NVhat this study doesn’t show us is whether in those intervening twelve years anyone made a sensitive and concerted effort to help any of the impulsive marshmalloweaters to develop self-control; the implication is that no one did.

Carolyn once worked with a twelve-year-old boy who was extremely impulsive. His reactions to any provocations were explosive. If someone 11 pulled his chain, ” as we say, he punched first and thought about it later. NVhat he needed, she knew, was some mechanism that would help him stop to think before he acted.

With this particular boy, she be!ieved a visual image might be useful. So she concocted the image/metaphor of the “thought sandwich.” A sandwich was an image that the boy could, and did, draw in cross-section. The bottom layer of bread in the sandwich, as Carolyn and he defined it, was usually an enraging provocation by another child; the top layer was his response to the provocation, usually a punch in the face or an insulting taunt. The filling in the sandwich was the thought-the heart of the sandwich, actually-that he could put between the two pieces of bread. Without any filling he didn’t have much of a sandwich. The filling consisted of identifying what was provoking him to react, then weighing his choices and their probable consequences before coming to a decision about how to react. He sometimes activated this method of self-control by actually visualizing a sandwich in his mind.

There are many potential techniques and metaphors for helping a boy gain a measure of control over impulsivity, and maybe the best ones are invented in the concrete interactions between two people who are trying to find a way to deal with everyday life.

Awareness of Standards

If the first element of self-control is neurological capacity, then the second element is knowledge and awareness of standards of behavior expected by people that a boy should respect. A boy is now reading his environment for clues as to how he should behave-the script, as it were, of his self-control. This is not a simple task. By the time he reaches school age, a boy has encountered several systems of rules and expectations every day. None of those systems is entirely consistent from day to day or even hour to hour.

Few of those systems spend much time explaining and justifying the expected standards of behavior. Boys, moreover, are less consistently monitored in terms of hewing to expected standards of behavior than girls are, so boys are understandably uncertain, at times, how strictly standards are being upheld.

From the Internet, however, I offer an example of the level of self-control that can be obtained in a boy who has control problems when the expectations are clearly stated just before an event. A father writes about his school-age son, Larry, who carries the diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder):

Last night we took Larry to his soccer team awards dinner. My wife and I were not looking forward to having Larry in this exciting situation, and he was already ‘bouncing off the wall’before we left. While I was parking the car, we had a very serious talk about how we expected him to act, and what the consequences would be if he didn’t comply.

The soccer team consisted of eleven 8 to 10-year-old boys. They all sat at one big table while all of the family members and friends sat at other tables. We sat next to Larry’s table. It was noisy and crowded. The boys were hungry and restless. Lots of loud talking and banging of silverware on the table. Several boys were shooting spitballs with straws at others. Three boys were putting pieces of paper napkins in the lit candles until someone took the candles away. Some boys were cutting in line at the buffet table. One chair fell over with a boy in it. Lots of parents were calling out to their sons to ‘knock it off.’

My wife and I were ready for Larry to add to this big storm. But, HE DIDN’T! He just sat calmly and smiled at the other boys. He played with his water and straw but didn’t do anything inappropriate. We couldn’t believe how well he acted. We praised him dearly after the dinner, and of course he was hyped up all the way home (he must have saved it up). My wife and I laughed and sighed, wondering if Larry would ever behave this well again.

Motivation and Self-control

As a boy moves from control by others to internalized self-control, he has to develop more than knowledge of what others expect of him; he has to develop motivation to meet those expectations. There is an emotional component to self-control. A person must want to maintain self-control. Louis Armstrong grew up in a tough New Orleans neighborhood called “The Battlefield” because of its reputation for drunken street fights in volving knives and guns. On New Year’s Eve of 1912 or 1913, Louis took his grandmother’s boyfriend’s pistol from its hiding place and went out with friends to fire it during the celebration. They were walking along South Rampart Street when a boy fired a blank in Armstrong’s direction. Louis impulsively fired back a real bullet, and a policeman arrested him. The next day, after a short hearing, he was sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home to begin an indeterminate sentence.

The home was one of many established as part of the American child welfare movement, but was unusual in that it was started by an AfricanAmerican, a former soldier named Joseph Jones and his wife, Manuella. One observer recalled: “The boys were taught reading, writing and arithmetic, with garden work as a sideline. Twice weekly, the boys marched around the yard outside, with wooden guns and wooden drums.” Peter Davis was the leader of the Colored Waits’ Home Band that performed around town to raise money for the home. The band consisted of a bass drum and about fifteen brass instruments, “perhaps three or four cornets and a roughly equal assortment of alto and baritone horns, trombones and perhaps a tuba. The boys wore long white pants turned up to look like knickers, blue gabardine coats, black stockings, sneakers, and caps’ ” Davis didn’t take to Louis at the outset. Day after day, Louis sat quietly in the band room, listening and watching. Finally he was offered a tambourine to play, then the bass drum, and still later an alto horn, on which Armstrong shone. The rest is history. After his release years later, Louis rented a cornet for gigs on the street and in dance halls. Once he found a musical sponsor in Joseph “King” Oliver, with whom he made an influential set of recordings on second cornet, he was on his way. I cite this story as a stirring example of how the three aspects of control can come to an harmonious intersection. Louis Armstrong’s love and fabulous talent for music gave him the motive to master his instrument, the mastery itself a paradigm of self-control and self-discipline. The mastery also gave him tremendous influence in the musical world and the culture at large. But first of all, he gained the motivation to control the impulsivity that had led him into trouble and into the Waifs’ Home.

Music gave Louis the means to avoid being exploited by the environment. His particular kind of music, jazz, exemplifies freedom within limits. It’s a form of music that demands respect for the rules of a particular style-traditional, blues, swing, bebop, for example-but then the performer is free to improvise. Within those bounds, the best players, like Louis Armstrong, constantly invent new melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, salting them with deep and honest feeling. jazz is a nice metaphor for the combination of self-control and creative action that constitute character.

Louis Armstrong’s story contains something to be hoped for in every boy’s life: that he will find a thing or things he is passionate about, and his passion will enable him to tolerate the long hours of practice to master the discipline. For many boys, the passion is sports of one type or another, but for others it is music-as it was for me-or other arts, or rebuilding cars, or collecting things, or mastering the technology of computers and other electronic instruments. NVhatever the discipline, one hopes that a boy has a substantial amount of autonomy in its selection. History offers many examples of a parent’s passion contagiously becoming the passion of a son, who may even surpass the parent in accomplishment. There are far too many boys, however, playing a sport because it’s Dad’s idea or unhappily practicing the piano because it’s Mom’s idea. Then a boy’s continuation in the activity tends to become a power struggle between him and his parent. The parent may win such a struggle, at least temporarily, but often at the cost of losing any possibility that the activity will ever be an enthusiastic passion for the boy.

My own experience convinces me of the enormous value of such a strong individual passion. During my year in sixth grade, the band director looked over the available boys interested in musical performance, noted my stocky build, and asked if I’d like to try the tuba. it was a match made in heaven. I liked the instrument immediately-its size, its range of tone from the throatiest growls through the mellow middle range to squeals at the top.

In seventh grade, the school orchestra director announced tryouts, and I went, intending to try out for the piano position, since piano was still my principal instrument. The tryout was a sight-reading test. I played fairly well, but when I heard my classmate Paul Hersh play I was flabbergasted. He tore into difficult music and played it as though he had been practicing for weeks. It was a revelatory moment for me. The thought flashed through my mind: No matter how long I practice, I’ll never be able to play like that. This was followed immediately by a second thought: But I have a fallback position; I can be as good on the tuba as Paul on the piano. In a nanosecond my musical career tacked in a new direction. It was my first important experience in evaluating my own talents and taking the prudent (and equally fulfilling) path.

A few months ago I talked with the parents of three boys aged eleven, fifteen, and seventeen. We talked most about the fifteen-year-old, Toby, because I had heard from a mutual friend that he was already a good musician. In the fourth grade, Toby had a music teacher who introduced him to the trumpet; it was love at first sound. Soon he was in a little school jazz band, and in his second year got to accompany the school chorus in “White Christmas” and play another solo.

Toby’s mother said he is “borderline” ADD (attention deficit disorder) but doesn’t take medication for it. He had recently been ejected from an academic class, and when the teacher was asked why, he said that there was one too many students assigned to the room and Toby was the most disruptive one. He scores very well in intelligence tests, but his academic record is very mixed because he can’t apply himself consistently to his schoolwork.

But music is a very different story because his passion for it overrides his fidgetiness. Even there, his path is not entirely smooth. He was expelled from the school jazz band in eighth grade because he wasn’t doing well enough in academic subjects to qualify for extracurricular activities-a disciplinary move, to my mind, of dubious wisdom. He had also gotten tossed out of a concert orchestra by inserting some bars of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle of Brahms’s Symphony No. I during a performance at a museum! But music is the great stabilizer in his life. Without it, he would be an adolescent defined mainly by his problems; because of music, he manages to get by in school, and he has a ground for self-confidence and a future. One of his teachers, who found Toby disruptive in the classroom, said to Toby’s mother after attending a performance in which Toby shone on the trumpet, “If I hadn’t seen him here I wouldn’t have known how great a kid he is.”

Stages of Self-control

The process by which a boy acquires self-control mirrors in many ways the process by which an adult may develop different levels of parental Awareness. Each begins at a self-centered stage. The infant’s first focus is on his own needs for survival: food, comfort, loving attention. Every adult has equivalent needs. It is important not to equate this early stage with selfishness. Since the newborn is both helpless to care for himself, and entirely unable to contribute care to anyone else, it is beside the point to refer to his behavior as selfish. Selfishness comes into the picture only when he has developed the capacity to help himself and others and has the mental acuity to weigh his own needs against the needs of others.

A boy’s first step in self-control comes when he begins to absorb the network of rules and values by which he is being raised. Through a series of daily rewards and reprimands or punishments, a boy learns what adults expect of him. He begins to internalize these benchmarks of good behavior and to fulfill them of his own accord without having to be reminded or constrained every time. His parents and other caregivers have reached the Level Two of playing by the rules long before he has, and for both parent and child observing rules of good behavior will continue to be a major component of exerting control over others and exerting self-control for the remainder of their lives.

As a boy matures in self-control, he begins to see the effect of his actions on particular others. He may at first see this impact in stereotypical ways, but further experience can pave the way to more sensitive evaluations of what he has done. Now he can begin to tailor his subsequent actions to what he believes their effects will probably be. Without this capacity, a boy invited to a birthday party might decide to take a model airplane as a present because he himself loves model airplanes. A moment’s reflection might have told him that the birthday boy collects baseball cards and has never shown the slightest bit of interest in the gift-giver’s model airplane collection; the model airplane kit will never be built.

This development corresponds to a parent’s understanding a son in his individuality-operating at We are Both Individuals-Level Threeawareness. I see this as a critical development in dealing with issues of control. Until the parent begins to operate at this level, the principal resource the parent has available is rules. But rules are frequently believed to apply equally to all children.

At Level Three, a parent comprehends what a mystery each child is, and how unique. With respect to control and self-control, for example, each child is affected by his particular biological-neurological inheritance and development, which has something in common with that of other children but is also different from every other temperament. As a parent respectfully interacts with a son, the son will reveal what his temperament allows as a base for self-control, but his behavior as a reflection of his temperament will vary some from situation to situation, and will change as the child matures.

Likewise, a son will give clues to the inquiring parent of his emotionalmotivational basis for self-control-or for impulsive loss of control. When a boy exhibits problematical behavior-let’s say he teases others at school or even shows some bullying behavior-a parent operating at Level Three will want to get a sense of what this behavior means to the son; what needs or fears are provoking the boy to poor behavior? How may those needs and fears be treated in order to remove the incentive for the boy to take out his frustration on others? Addressing these reasons for his behavior will help such a boy far more than merely reasserting rules and promising to punish him if he repeats the behavior (a typical Level Two response) or chastising him on the grounds that his behavior is an embarrassment to his parents (a Level One response) Not only are boys a mystery to their parents and other caregivers; they are a mystery in many respects to themselves. They are very much in the process of exploring themselves, discovering themselves, even as their selves change before their own eyes. As a parent takes an inquiring posture toward a son, so the son is encouraged to take an inquiring posture toward himself.

At the highest level of self-control, some boys begin to be aware both of their effects on others, and of others’ effects on them-and even aware of others being aware of them. In other words, social interactions have become the subject of awareness. Interactions become available for discussion when they are accompanied by awareness.

Parents can discuss with a son why another boy gets under his skin, challenges his self-control. Role-playing by family members can give a boy practice in thinking before he acts, and in imagining the motives and consequences of a particular strategy: Why do you think he does that? NVhat are your thoughts about how to make the situation better? What if he doesn’t do what you expect him to do? What if your first response makes the situation worse? Have you considered all of the available strategies-staying cool, buying time or delaying, defusing the conflict, even backing off.


By age six, girls, on average, have an advantage over boys with respect to self-control. Girls can sit longer without feeling frustrated by inactivity. They pay attention with less apparent effort. Boys innately desire a more vigorous level of physical activity than girls. Boys fidget. This quickly becomes an issue because boys’ rambunctiousness gets labeled as character deficiency. Girls get praised for their selfregulation; boys get criticized for their lack of it.

A diagnostic category has been developed in the past few decades to identify impulsivity, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity in children that is outside normal temperamental variation, and also certain cognitive problems. The current terms of this diagnostic category, known as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), state that the symptoms must have been present before the child’s seventh birthday, must have been present for at least six months, must have been observed in at least two settings-home and school, for example-must have caused significant social problems, and must not be traceable to some other known primary factor.

When the problems are principally related to inattention, the child might be observed especially frequently to: make careless mistakes; have difficulty sustaining attention; seem not to listen even when spoken to directly; fail to pursue instructions and finish assignments. N”en the symptoms are predominantly hyperactive -impulsive, the child often fidgets and squirms; leaves his seat in school without permission; talks excessively and blurts out answers before questions have been completed; has difficulty waiting his turn; runs about excessively when it is inappropriate; interrupts others; has difficulty playing quietly; sometimes distracts others with repetitive actions such as drumming with a pencil or tapping with a foot.

When the symptoms are cognitive, the child may have difficulty understanding and following a set of directions, or organizing material according to its central theme, or even identifying the central theme; may find it unusually difficult to retain memorized data such as multiplication tables; may appear to avoid tasks that require sustained mental effort; may frequently lose or misplace things necessary for tasks; may find it difficult to follow routines for such tasks as getting ready for school; may have difficulty relating work assignment to the passage of time. This complex phenomenon of absorbing information, processing it, remembering it, and applying it to specific tasks as needed is often referred to as “the executive function.” The labels ADD and ADHD, especially the latter hyperactive variety, are considered by many pediatricians and child development specialists to be a diagnostic wastebasket. A neurological disorder is implied in the diagnostics, but how does one distinguish between instances of neurological impairment and normal temperamental variation shown by childrenfactoring in, as one must, the level of activity most boys desire? As William Carey of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has written, “It seems highly likely that most of the children being given the diagnosis of ADHD today are completely intact neurologically and merely have temperaments that are poorly understood, tolerated, or managed by their caregivers.’ Parents, Carey notes, often complain about their children’s temperaments even in the absence of behavioral problems because there is an uncomfortable temperamental fit between parent and child.

The pediatrician who does not understand these important variations is likely to ignore, belittle, or pathologize them. When there is dysfunctional behavior (aggression, school underachievement, poor self-regulation, etc.), a knowledge of the child’s temperament is essential for two reasons. It often helps to explain why this particular child happened to develop the disorder, that is, how the risk factor predisposed this child to develop the behavior problem while an equally stressed sibling or peer did not. It also helps to distinguish the part of the behavior that is the largely inborn temperament and not easily altered from the part that is a reaction to the situation and therefore more changeable by an intervention. For example, is the child’s oppositional behavior problem entirely a reflection of unfavorable experiences, or did it come at least in part from an inflexible temperament and the caregiver’s mishandling of it due to lack of understanding, tolerance, or skill?

Mark Vonnegut, a pediatrician, recently wrote a column commenting on his experience as a member of a National Institutes of Health panel assembled to review the state of current knowledge of ADHD, listen to testimony by thirty experts, and make a consensus statement.

I know there is a real disease hiding under the confusion. I have patients who have it, and I have seen its effects. But the disease itself is hard to measure. There’s no clear cause, and nothing unequivocal-like a blood test or CAT scan finding-to determine when someone has it. So we are left with a disease that is defined only by behavior. And the qualities that define it by inattention, hyperactivity, and poor impulse control-are present to some degree in virtually all children. Indeed, those qualities are also a common reaction to many different kinds of stress.

This debate within pediatrics and child development would be more of an academic exercise if it weren’t for pharmacology. Approximately a million schoolchildren-the large majority of them boys-are currently taking either psychostimulants such as Ritalin or, when these are not effective, tricyclic antidepressants such as Impramine to increase attention span, improve concentration, and decrease motor activity. In many of these cases, medication has been prescribed without anyone conducting the extensive physical and psychological tests that might adequately support a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD. I disagree with Dr. Vonnegut’s assertion that we are limited to behavioral symptoms. Extensive-but expensive-psychological testing can establish with a high degree of probability whether a child has ADD or ADHD impairment.

However, I haven’t any doubts about his assertion that even the behavioral symptoms are often glossed over in practice. The problem, as Vonnegut sees it, is that the medications work too well. “If you take a child who doesn’t have ADHD but acts out in class, and treat him with Ritalin, he will stop acting out in class. If you take someone who doesn’t have ADHD but has trouble settling down to his homework and give him a little Ritatin, he will settle down and do his homework. If a child is having trouble concentrating because he was drunk the night before, Ritalin will help him focus.” So, he concludes, it takes more and more conscious exercise of responsibility for a caregiver or physician to look for the real cause of problematic behavior without turning to the quick fix of an ADHD diagnosis and a bottle of Ritalin.

One should also bear in mind that many families would be hard pressed to afford the expensive tests involved in clinically diagnosing ADD or ADHD. Faced with either inattention or hyperactivity-impulsivity behavior, a prescription of Ritalin on a trial basis, though not inexpensive, is far less expensive than a battery of tests and perhaps a course of counseling or therapy to treat problematic behavior.

The misapplication of ADHD diagnoses and medication to behavioral disorders best understood and treated by other means obscures the fact that there is such a thing as ADD and ADHD, and that, in the view of one recent theorist, it centrally involves “delays in the development of inhibition and selfregulation,” or, in simpler terms, that this is a disorder of self-control.

Neuropsychologist Russell Barkley asserts that his is the first formulation of ADHD to predict that the disorder (1) disrupts the capacity for working or representational memory and the power of covertly sensing, or, more accurately, resensing, information to oneself; (2) creates a delay in the internalization of speech during development and the self-control dependent upon this rather miraculous developmental process; (3) impairs the development of the psychological sense of time, hindsight, and forethought and, particularly, the employment of those senses in the regulation of one’s own behavior relative to time and the future; (4) disrupts not only the power to internally represent information but also the capacity to reconstitute that information in the service of goal-directed behavioral creativity and the temporal organization of behavior; (5) diminishes the capacity for private, covert emoting and motivating oneself that is critical to objectivity, perspicacity, intentionality, and the motivational support of behavior as it is driven toward the future; (6) impairs the capacity to imitate or replicate the complex behavioral sequences of others; (7) results in more externalized or public than internalized or covert’thinking’behavior than is typical of normal individuals; and (8) interferes with the goaldirected persistence, volition, and free-wfll of the individual.

Barkley centers ADHD in a flawed interior process of self-regulation, emphasizing the deficiencies of executive function that are often not as obvious as hyperactive behavior or inattentiveness.

We have already seen how fundamentally early self-control depends on the ability of the toddler and preschooler to use language to create an internal dialogue with himself (that he sometimes articulates aloud when he is working or playing by himself). In this interior process, the child stores information, retrieving it as needed, organizes the performance of tasks, watches others do things and imagines how he could replicate their activity, reenacts emotional conflicts prior to dealing with them externally, relates his activities to the passage of time, and makes plans and anticipates the future.

All of these functions may be impaired in the mind of a child with true ADD or ADHD. He impulsively acts out because he can’t stop to consider his response the way other children can. Without a strong sense of time past and time future, he lives in a dominant present time; as soon as his attention wanes, he skips on to something else. He has an impaired capacity to select out of all the activity and other stimuli around him-other children moving slightly, an airplane visible out the window or heard passing overhead, the second hand moving on the wall clock-the thing he most needs to pay attention to: the teacher explaining an arithmetic problem. (I once accompanied the mother of a boy clinically diagnosed with ADHD on a visit to a classroom where every bit of wall space was covered with maps and charts and art. “My son would find this room a nightmare of distraction,” she said.) III-equipped to “read” other children who are operating mentally in a very different mode, the child with ADD or ADHD may have a difficult time making and maintaining friendships. His disorder often disguises his real intelligence, and he may be teased as being “stupid” or “dumb.”

An appreciation of the dimensions of accurately diagnosed ADD or ADHD implies the importance of distinguishing it from normal-range temperamental hyperactivity or inattentiveness. Both need the assistance of an empathic environment. In the case of normal temperamental variation, there are many small adjustments a school or family can make to adapt to a boy’s temperament without resorting to drugs. When the behavior is excessive and problematic, the search for environmental explanations and resolutions should always precede the use of medications to dampen the symptoms.

When ADD or ADHD exists, the challenge is greater. A boy with a disturbance of executive function needs disciplined help with storing information so he can find it and review it when, as often, memory fails him; help with understanding directions and organizing his schoolwork and other projects; help with tracking time; help to get himself back under control when he impulsively vents frustration without stopping to think what effect he’s having on others. Psychostimulants or tricyclic antidepressants may benefit a boy with ADD or ADHD, though not all boys respond well and some are too bothered by side effects on appetite and sleep; but they would rarely, if ever, be all that such a boy would need to regain and maintain all the dimensions of self-control in a normal range. But then neither are they all that the hundreds of thousands of boys need who have exhibited temperamental lack of self-control, and then have been swiftly misdiagnosed as having ADD or ADHD and medicated.

Self-control and Character

To exhibit sterling character, a boy growing up has to pay attention to all three dimensions of control: control of his environment, control by his environment, and self-control. If any of the three gets seriously out of balance, his life is going to be destructive or unhappy. By balance, I mean that life involves a series of quests for power and influence that are positive and necessary, but that, overdone, become destructive, even evil. The balance of each quest has to be reevaluated day by day, year by year: has the line been crossed between justifiable goals and unjustifiable dominance, or not? Has the line been crossed between others’ appropriate assertion of influence toward a boy, and unjustifiable subordination?

The male’s wish to control his environment is affected deeply by his hardwired drive to construct hierarchies of power and influence and acquire as much dominance in those hierarchies as he can. It’s in his genes. This drive has so many unconscious elements that males often pursue control without awareness of what they are doing. They pursue it individually in personal relationships, particularly intimate and marital relationships, and they pursue it collectively in groups and teams.

Power is, as the cliche has it, the ultimate aphrodisiac. Males pursue it with enormous ardor, and there is no one institution in their lives that reliably educates them about this disposition and its potential for hurting others. So males are often out of control in their quest for control. Power out of control has to be countered by conscious resistance. Others have to push back in an effective way. The principal historical examples in our society of pushing back against domination are the antislavery movement that eventually led to the civil rights movement; the women’s movement against male dominance in many institutions; the union movement in behalf of laborers against management and ownership; several ethnic solidarity movements in behalf of ethnic minorities against dominant ethnic groups; the environmental movement against the destruction of the natural world; peace movements protesting war as an instrument of national policy against weaker nations; and an emerging concern for children’s rights to education, health, and protection from harm and exploitation, manifested in the recent United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every male growing up has to determine how he will align himself against dominating powers in his personal life and in his social life. His character will be tested time and time again as he is challenged to defend his own rights and to align himself with others struggling collectively.

Self-control plays a critical role in all of this. As I’ve suggested, a flexible and resilient self-control is a goal in itself. A male who has himself under control is a happier man than a male teetering at the edge. Self-control also plays a part in decisions to pull back from opportunities to dominate others or to stand up effectively to oppressors.


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