Although self-discipline is one of the six most important life skills that we should be teaching children, it’s often overlooked. There are many reasons why kids need to learn self-discipline. It is a great skill that will greatly help them throughout their lives. Teaching self-discipline should be an ongoing process throughout a child’s life, and there are several different ways in which parents can promote self-discipline skills.
Kids need structure and routine so they can become self-disciplined. Establish clear household rules and stick to the consequences when rules are broken. This teaches kids what to expect and they will be better equipped to make healthy choices.
Create a similar schedule every day. Kids need a morning routine that includes when to eat breakfast, comb their hair, brush their teeth, and get dressed. Create an after-school routine that teaches them how to divide their time between chores, homework, and fun activities. Also, it’s important to have a bedtime routine that teaches the importance of settling down and getting plenty of rest.
Kids need to know how to make healthy choices for themselves. When it comes to helping kids learn how to make healthy choices, an authoritative approach can be one of the best types of discipline because it helps kids understand reasons for the rules.
Instead of simply saying to a child, “Do your homework right when you get home from school,” explain the underlying reason for the rule. Say, “It’s a good choice to do your homework first and then have free time later, as a reward for getting your work done.” This helps them to understand why it is a good idea rather than thinking, “I have to do my homework before dinner because that’s what Mom said I have to do.”
Role playing can be an excellent way to educate kids on self-discipline. Identify specific problems that kids are likely to face and discuss different ways to deal with those problems. With a younger child, role play how to respond if another child takes his toy, calls him a name or pushes him. With an older child, role play how to resist peer pressure or what to do in unsafe situations. Role playing can help kids feel better prepared and it can prevent them from responding impulsively.
Use Appropriate Consequences
Sometimes kids need to face natural consequences. A child who constantly forgets his homework at home each morning, won’t learn to pack his belongings each day if his mother delivers his homework to the school each time he forgets. Instead, he may need to face the consequence from his teacher before he learns.
Sometimes kids need logical consequences. A child who plays too rough with his mother’s computer may need to lose the privilege of playing games on it. Or a child who has trouble getting up in the morning may need an earlier bedtime that night.
When parents are focusing on self-discipline, it’s important to avoid power struggles. Don’t try to force kids to do something because it won’t teach self-discipline. Instead, make it clear what the negative consequences will be and give them the choice. They need to learn how to make healthy decisions for themselves by evaluating the consequences.
Shape Behavior One Step at a Time
Self-discipline is a process that takes years to hone and refine. Use age-appropriate discipline strategies to shape behavior one step at a time. Instead of expecting a 6-year-old to suddenly be able to do his entire morning routine without any reminders, use a picture chart on the wall that depicts someone combing their hair, brushing their teeth, and getting dressed. You can even take pictures of your child doing these activities and create your own chart.
When necessary, provide reminders to your child to look at the chart until he is able to look at the chart and do each task on his own. Eventually, he’ll need less reminders and won’t require the chart as his self-discipline improves.
Give kids lots of positive attention and praise when they show self-discipline. If a child asks for help instead of hitting his brother, say, “You made a really good choice to ask for help.” Sometimes good behavior goes unnoticed, and giving kids praise for making good choices increases the likelihood that they’ll repeat that behavior.
Provide praise when kids do things without requiring reminders. Say, “Great job sitting down to do your homework before I even told you to!” or “I’m so proud that you chose to clean your room today all on your own.” Even saying, “Great job putting your dish in the sink when you were done eating,” can go a long way to encourage a repeat performance.
Teach Problem-Solving Skills
Teach problem-solving skills and work together to problem-solve specific issues related to self-discipline. Sometimes, asking kids what they think would be helpful can be an eye opening experience that can lead to creative solutions.
Sometimes there are easy solutions to problems. A child who struggles to get dressed in time for school may benefit from having her outfit picked out the night before. Or maybe setting a timer for five minutes can keep her on task.
More complex problems may require a series of trial and error type interventions. A teenager who isn’t getting his homework done may need several changes before he becomes more motivated to get his work done on his own. Try removing a privilege. If that doesn’t work, try having him stay after school to see if he can get it done before he comes home. Keep trying different solutions until you can find something that works while keeping him involved in the process.
Kids learn the most by watching what you do. If they see you procrastinating or choosing to watch TV instead of doing the dishes, they’ll pick up on your habits. Model appropriate behavior by showing kids how to stay on task, manage their anger, and make healthy choices.
A reward system can be a great way to target specific problems with self-discipline. A preschooler who struggles to stay in his own bed at night may benefit from a sticker chart to motivate him. An older child who struggles to do his homework on time and get his chores done may benefit from a token economy system.
Reward systems should be short-term. Parents can phase them out as kids begin mastering these skills. There are plenty of rewards that don’t cost money and parents can use privileges, electronics time, to help motivate kids to behave responsibly.