“Discipline” often is considered a dirty word because of its associations with punishment and authoritarianism. But self-discipline has largely positive connotations: maturity, achievement, commitment. Instead of “disciplining” kids to make them behave, teach them early on to discipline themselves. No one is too young to learn self-discipline basics:
A Sense of Purpose
To discipline oneself to reach for higher goals than instant gratification, one needs personal commitment to the belief that those goals are achievable and worthwhile. This belief rarely takes hold unless a goal is directly relevant to an individual’s natural abilities and passions: so pay attention when kids talk about “what I want to be when I grow up.” Expand the conversation to include things they can do right now—music lessons, science fair entries—and ways to keep setting next-step-forward goals.
No matter how committed someone is to a goal, there will be trial and error and frustration. Small children have natural persistence (if they didn’t, no one would ever learn to walk), but it’s often quickly forgotten if they grow up with adults who rush in to “rescue” them at the first hint of tears. Even if it hurts to see your child crying after the twentieth unsuccessful attempt to get the parts in the right place, resist the temptation to step in and do it yourself: that’s akin to saying you don’t expect her to ever get it right, and will only discourage future learning. If she’s really upset, suggest that she join you for a break—a hot chocolate or a walk around the block—and then return to her project with fresh eyes.
Patience is a close cousin to persistence, but even harder to master. While persistence at least involves doing something, patience mostly implies waiting for something. (Unlike persistence, patience isn’t something we’re born with, as anyone knows who has tried to convince a cranky toddler to wait for Dad to get off the phone.) Fortunately, patience needn’t be entirely passive. Kids as well as adults can learn to use the interim time productively: studying a topic, practicing new skills, making a vision board to clarify goals.
Goals are best achieved when well planned for: written down, divided into steps, and scheduled. Chances are your children already have some practice in personal organization: hanging up their clothes; getting to school on schedule; having set times for homework/play/dinner/bed; preparing school assignments. (If you can’t think of any examples—if you have a household where everything is “made up as we go along” or done in a last-minute rush—better study a few articles on decluttering and personal organization, for kids and adults.) You can help children further develop their organizational skills by making a family project of creating a household budget or planning a trip.
Self-discipline feels most worthwhile when based on positive expectations for the world and oneself. Do all you can to banish grumbling and fretting from everyday conversation. Focus on the benefits of self-discipline and the dividends it will pay in the future—while still taking time to enjoy the present—and your kids will become achievers in the best sense!
Blessings to parents and children of all ages!