Oh Behave

Help in raising a self-disciplined child.

We all want our children to possess self-discipline. The skills of self-discipline help children be responsible, follow rules and behave appropriately in and out of the home— from the classroom and playground to the doctor and dentist offices.

Many parents feel perplexed about the most effective ways to help their children develop self-discipline. Meanwhile, one of the most important roles of a parent is that of a disciplinarian. In fulfilling this role, remember that the word “discipline” derives from the word “disciple.” Discipline is best understood as a teaching process. And if discipline is seen as a form of education, then children should not associate it with intimidation, humiliation or embarrassment.

Similarly, by placing discipline in the context of an educational process, parents may realize that discipline has two major functions. The first is to ensure that children have a consistent, safe and secure environment in which they can learn reasonable rules, limits and consequences, as well as develop an understanding of why these boundaries are essential. The second function, equally as important but not as emphasized, is to nurture self-discipline and self-control.

Applying discipline to teach self-discipline is often a challenging task. We want children to incorporate rather than dismiss what we are trying to teach them. However, children come to the world with different pre-dispositions and capacities. Some children easily develop self-discipline whereas others struggle. Some children are responsive to disciplinary techniques, able to quickly shift their behavior after a single negative experience or disciplinary intervention, whereas others are less able to modify their actions.

Here are some tips to help your child develop the self-discipline necessary to maintain good behavior in and out of the home.

  • Recognize that discipline is a teaching process aimed at reinforcing self-discipline. With this in mind, you can guide your actions with the questions, “How do I understand my children’s behavior?” and “Are my children learning self-discipline, responsibility and accountability from me, or is my message getting lost amid feelings of resentment and anger?” If parents view children as wild horses to be broken— a comment a parent once made to us— parents are more likely to punish and intimidate, especially if children do not respond promptly or consistently to requests and demands.
  • The quality of the parent-child relationship is a crucial part of a positive disciplinary approach. Children are more likely to listen to adults they perceive as fair, empathic and respectful, than to adults who seem arbitrary, inconsistent and angry. We often tell parents that discipline is most effective when housed within a positive relationship.
  • The end result of discipline is not to produce compliant, obedient children. Though such children may follow rules, some may do so out of fear without appreciating the rationale for rules. Instead, discipline should reinforce responsibility in children. Make sure your children understand the purpose of rules and consequences. If they believe that rules are imposed upon them arbitrarily, they will have more difficulty incorporating these rules as guideposts in their daily lives.
  • Self-discipline involves a person accepting ownership and responsibility for the rules that govern his or her life. Self-discipline, therefore, is associated with a sense of personal control. Personal control involves recognizing that we are the authors of our own lives— that we must not seek our happiness by waiting for someone else to change. When faced with a problem, a self-disciplined person asks, “What can I do to change the situation?”
  • Apply disciplinary techniques that encourage your children to use problem-solving and decision-making skills. Learning to think before acting and considering different options for solving conflicts develops the very essence of self-discipline.
  • Reinforce what you want to see. Too often, parents equate discipline with punishment. But punishment is typically the least effective form of discipline, as it focuses on what children should not do rather than reinforcing what we would like children to do. Positive feedback and encouragement tend to be far more effective disciplinary strategies than punishment. If we want positive behaviors to continue, we must reward them. We tend to forget that a simple comment such as “thanks” can dramatically change a child’s negative behavior.
  • Parents who are effective disciplinarians recognize that they get better results from a proactive rather than a reactive approach. A proactive approach complements problem solving. It motivates parents to be empathic and attempt to understand what is eliciting their child’s problem behavior, and then ask, “Are there ways of modifying the situation in order to deter my child from behaving in that way?” Being proactive also prompts parents to contemplate ways to involve children in finding adequate solutions to problems.