The Habit of Self Discipline

People so often ask me “How do you get your kids to ….?” eat their vegetables, read better books, cook dinner, clean their rooms, practice their instrument.  While I usually laugh, and reply, “I’m a Tiger Mother,” which not everyone understands, the real key is the habit of self discipline.  Before kids can learn to discipline themselves, the mother has to discipline herself.  When the parent has decided what necessary tasks the children must perform, or behaviors that must be formed in the children, she must have the self discipline to continue to require these tasks even if she is tired or does not feel like enforcing the rules.

I had often heard the idea that for a habit to be formed requires 30 repetitions of the behavior.  However, I believe it takes much longer than that.  Perhaps you can make a good beginning at forming a habit in 30 days, but it requires years for children to build up a habit of self discipline.  During all that time, the mother must continue to enforce her discipline upon them.  When they say, “I don’t want to eat tomatoes,” you have to be prepared to say, “You must.”  When they say, “I hate piano!” the mother must be prepared to say, “I don’t care.”

This is not unfeeling, and some allowance can be made for changes in schedule, sickness, or other exceptions.  For the most part, however, to ever stop fighting about something, no concessions can ever be made.  If the child wins one battle of the wills, they most definitely will try again.  Children are not stupid, and they have long memories.  Above all, no concessions can be made without a good reason:  the reason cannot be that Mama doesn’t feel like arguing.

So how do I start?  Start by determining what are absolute essentials in your home.  Perhaps it is not essential to have every area of the house  cleaned every day, but it is necessary to pick up all the dirty clothes and make the beds every day.  Make that determination known, and then don’t allow anything to progress until that essential has been completed. Before breakfast, before stories, before playtime, ask, “Have you made your bed?’  As soon as the realization is made that life has come to a stop until that task is completed, most children will cooperate.  They may not cooperate happily or willingly, but that is not one of the essentials.  Only cooperation is essential.

For something like the practice of an instrument, the parent may at first have to set aside the same amount of time as the student.  During that time, the parent should direct their attention to how the child is working.  The goal is good concentration, and as long as the student is concentrating, the parent can just listen.  However, once the child is distracted, the parent can jump in with a suggestion of how to practice.  “Why don’t you play that song again, using the dynamics this time?”, “Did you check your bow hold?”, “How is your fingering?”  This will require some attention on the part of the parent to know what the child has been doing, and what he should be doing.  It teaches children how to discipline their attention to the task at hand.

When you have achieved cooperation, it is good to congratulate your children on their completion of the task, but don’t over-exaggerate.  It is not the best thing they have ever done in their whole lives.  The EXPECTATION is that they will cooperate.  When they realize you expect their cooperation as a matter of course, they will be more likely to fulfill demands made upon them with little argument or pleading.

Another necessity is a good example from the parents.  Children cannot be expected to complete tasks that their parents refuse.  If your bed is unmade, you certainly cannot demand that of your children.  When children see their parents working toward the goal the children are working for, they realize that as a family, cooperation is necessary.  When the family does cooperate toward a goal and achieve it, let everyone know that they were a part of the achievement.

Does it sound like too much work?  While it is a lot of work to begin training children in the habit of self discipline, the pay-off is huge.  You will have trustworthy children who will reliably complete any task left for them.  When you need their help, you will be sure that they will come through for you.  What a reward for learning the habit of self discipline!

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