7 Lessons to Help Kids Master Self-Discipline
Most of us are familiar with the Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The ant spends all summer working hard, gathering food to prepare for the winter ahead, whilst the grasshopper lazes the days away playing his fiddle. Of course, when winter comes, the grasshopper quickly discovers that his lack of self-discipline results in starvation. Hence the moral: it is best to prepare for the days of necessity.
Being an athlete, I pride myself on being disciplined, seeing it as a means to an end when it comes to achieving the goals I want in my life. I have tried to instill this skill in my own children by teaching through example.
One of the main characteristics of self-discipline is the ability to forgo immediate gratification and pleasure, in favor of some greater gain. Discipline isn’t something that we can simply will ourselves to have. It’s a skill that’s developed over time with practice and self-regulation.
As parents, we have an important responsibility to prepare our little humans to go off into the world armed with the skills they need to succeed in life. Teaching them at an early age the necessity of placing responsibility before pleasure is a key component in helping them to achieve success.
Here are 7 tips for teaching self-discipline to your little humans:
Assign One Thing at a Time
Remember parents: our little ones don’t have the mental faculties to multitask like us super moms and dads, so easy does it. Start slowly with one or two tasks delegated to them and as their attention span increases, gradually incorporate more. If they get overwhelmed, make some adjustments. Some days the motto in our house was: It’s better to do one completed task well than five half completed ones.
Discover Your Child’s Unique Rhythm
Each of us has certain times of the day that we’re the most or least productive. By discovering when our children are the most mentally alert and cooperative, we have a better opportunity of getting them to successfully complete specific tasks and goals. Remember that no two children are the same. One of my daughters would head straight to her homework when she got home from school, whilst the other needed time to decompress before she hit the books. So find the rhythm that works best for your kids.
The only way that a desired behavior can become a habit or routine is through constant and mindful repetition. Our little people’s brains aren’t able to effectively practice self-regulation, so it’s up to us to keep them on task until they are mature enough to do it on their own. This can be challenging, trust me I know, but it’s our job to crack the whip, so to speak, and to teach them to delay gratification (remember the grasshopper?)
Let Them Have Their Bad Days
Let’s face it, none of us are perfect – we all have off days. I’m sure even the ant had a couple of days here and there when he took it easy. On those fateful days when our little humans seem out of sync with the world and is the definition of self-will run riot, we need to give them a break.
Try to focus on one task for the entire day and praise them for it. This will teach them that even on bad days, they have the ability to discipline themselves. If they seem to be having a run of bad days, keep them focused on one single task and keep repeating these mantras to yourself: this too shall pass, and progress not perfection.
Have Weekly Evaluations
Set time once a week to sit down and evaluate your child’s work ethic, and make it positive. If you focus on all of the things that they’re not doing right, that’s pretty much all that they will hear. Remember, our brains are wired to be more negative than positive. So keep any negative feedback for encouraging and not shaming your little person to do better.
Watch Your Words
Be mindful not to use words like “lazy” when you are referring to your child’s inability to complete tasks. While a lack of self-discipline is often associated with “laziness,” the truth is that most humans struggle with a lack of discipline because nature wired us to avoid discomfort. When we label our little people with negative words like lazy, that doesn’t motivate them to become better people. It only creates shame and self-worthlessness.
Let Them Figure Out What Works
People who struggle with self-discipline are often individuals who are trying to avoid re-experiencing bad feelings from past failures and disappointments. They basically give up before they even try. This is known as aversive conditioning. A good example is learning not to touch a hot stove again once we have been burned.
We have to let our children feel good about their ability to be self-regulated. If we micro manage and criticize every detail of how they’re performing their tasks, we run the risk of planting the message that nothing they do is good enough and they may eventually just give up trying. Don’t hover. Leave and let them figure out what works best for them.
Self-discipline is not something that some people have or don’t have because of their genetic makeup. It’s a learned skill that all humans can acquire with practice. We teach this skill to our little ones by helping them understand the importance of self-regulation and delayed gratification. I imagine things certainly would have turned out differently for the grasshopper had he been taught the importance of self-discipline like the ant. But that would have been an entirely different fable.
What methods have you used to teach your child self-discipline?