Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline

Joanne Miller, RN, BSN

One of the primary tasks of childhood is to develop self-discipline. Of course this is a life long challenge and certainly most adults still find self-discipline hard at times, but the sooner a child begins to work on this important character quality, the better. If you have young children around, you’re likely correcting for interrupting, for being wild, for being too loud or rough, for not following instructions, for not controlling their hands or mouths, oh the list goes on and on…

These all require self-discipline or self-control. Young children are by nature impulsive. Children with ADHD or other biological factors have a hard time with impulsiveness as well. Part of the solution for impulse control is to teach self-discipline. But no one wants to sound like a broken record – stop doing that… settle down… no more rough housing… put that down…

What we need are some positive ways to build a child’s self-discipline.

A child armed with self-discipline has a tremendous asset for addressing life’s challenges. So many relational and personal problems can be avoided or controlled when one has self-control. But is this something some kids have and others don’t? Certainly not. All kids need to develop self-control in order to manage themselves in life. So how do we help them develop it? Here are several tools and arenas to focus on as you pray for self-discipline to grow in your child’s heart.

When children are young, two, three, four years old, you’ll want to teach them to come when they’re called. When a parent calls a child, that child shouldn’t yell, “What?” from across the house, parking lot or playground. Children can learn to come to the parent, within a few feet, in order to have a dialogue with the parent. This helps children learn that self-control sometimes means that we must give up what we would like to be doing in order to do something else. Of course this skill is not just for young children, everyone needs to walk toward a person who has called them, so practice this with older children as well.

Another arena for self-discipline is during correction.

When we teach children to respond calmly and respectfully to correction, they must draw on self-discipline. Most children don’t like to be corrected and respond negatively in either aggressive (anger) or passive (bad attitude) ways. This is unacceptable and becomes an excellent opportunity to practice self-discipline. One of the facts of life is that people in authority will correct you, and learning to apologize is tough. Even when you feel misunderstood or you think the offenses of others are being overlooked, the wise person looks for something they can learn and an area where they can grow. That requires self-control and helps children learn to control their impulses. A good response to correction is often difficult to learn but work in this area will help children develop skills that will help them forever.

As children get older, you’ll see there are a number of social skills that require self-control. Praise children when you see them think about the needs of others or greet people with thoughtfulness. Children need to learn to listen first, before speaking and learn when and how to interrupt. These take self-discipline, and often practice before they come naturally. Anger control, reporting back after completing a task, and cleaning up after oneself all require self-discipline.

Encourage children to take on activities that build self-discipline.

Activities that develop self-discipline include learning a skill, playing a sport, taking music lessons, taking on a job like caring for a neighbor’s pet, memorizing scripture, cleaning a room, or a host of other activities. Older children should certainly have responsibilities around the house. They can learn to paint a room, create and stick to a budget, or organize the garage. These are all proactive ways that a child can grow in self-discipline and develop a sense of personal satisfaction in the process.

When a child receives a reward like payment for a job accomplished or even a star on a chart or special treat, talk about self-discipline. External rewards give a great opportunity to talk about internal rewards. The real benefit of a job well done is not the money, it’s the self-discipline that’s developing. “You’re pretty determined and responsible.” “I know you would have rather played the game but I like the way you took time to walk the dog. That shows self-discipline.”

Another great opportunity to teach self-discipline is bedtime.

A regular bedtime is not about what you feel like doing, but doing the right thing – going to bed on time without a struggle. It requires a lot of self-control for a child to stay quietly in bed while parents are still awake. Set a bedtime, develop a routine that covers all the necessary bedtime tasks and work on getting your child to stay in bed without Mom or Dad falling asleep in the room. Self-discipline at bedtime is good  for older kids too. Teens can learn to keep an eye on the time and get themselves to bed so that their bodies get the sleep they need and they can get up with a good attitude in the morning.

Morning routines, chores, and family schedules become opportunities for children to learn responsibility and self-discipline. Responsibility is “doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” The rewards for being responsible are called privileges. The child who is responsible to get ready and be at breakfast by 7:30 a.m. is allowed the privilege of staying up until an 8:00 p.m. bedtime. Being able to choose one’s clothes is the privilege for getting dressed before the set time. Simple benefits of life can be seen as privileges associated with basic responsibility.

Some parents try to give their children an easier life than they had or they try to make their children feel good at the expense of good character. Unfortunately, this often translates into more freedom and less self-control. A wise parent will use childhood to prepare a child for success as an adult. Self-discipline is one of the most important character qualities a child can develop. Ironically, spoiled children are not happy; self-disciplined children are!

Self-discipline is a primary quality that will help children be successful in life. More techniques and ideas are available in the book, Good and Angry, Exchanging Frustration for Character in You and Your Kids. by Dr Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller. To begin teaching a child to come when called, consider listening to the MP3 Teaching Kids to Listen and Follow Instructions.

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