The Character Movement

Teaching Self-Discipline

Happy New Year! According to research, 40 percent of Americans typically make New Year’s resolutions. This year with my family, we’ve each chosen a word that we want to define 2015. For me, that word is “focus.” I want to invest more in less – to go deeper, rather than wider. I do think that making resolutions is a great practice – at any time of the year – if there are things you want to do better or do differently. If you want to make a change in your life, it takes resolve and it takes discipline. Self-discipline does not come easy to everyone. Instead, it is a skill that can and should be taught and encouraged from an early age.

How can we teach our kids to be disciplined not just in school but in life?

Student underachievement in schools is often blamed on ineffective teachers, strapped budgets and large class sizes. Sometimes this may be true, but perhaps the most critical issue that is affecting a student’s academic achievement is character-related.

Research shows that grit and self-discipline are one of the strongest predictors of academic success.

According to a Washington Post article, “Students who earn the highest grades often aren’t the ones with the highest IQs, but the ones working hardest.”

Admittedly, I am biased… I like to think of my daughter Tess as “gifted.” And yet, I realize that even if she was the smartest kid in the room, I would be prouder of her if she showed work ethic, determination and compassion. I believe that it is her discipline that will be her strongest asset – both in the classroom and in life. If I can teach my daughter how to practice self-discipline now, as a fourth grader, she will eventually learn to establish boundaries on her own without my support.

As a University of Pennsylvania study shows, there is value in self-restraint beyond the schoolyard days. It is a critical life skill needed in a complex and chaotic society. The role of a parent is a critical one in teaching your kids to comprehend and practice self-discipline – not simply in their studies, but in every facet of their life as well. After dinner last week, Tess asked me if she could watch one more episode of Star Trek instead of reading before bed. Though it is a great joy of mine to cultivate my daughter into a full-fledged Trekkie, I instead let Tess know that reading is an important part of her nightly routine — not simply because it allows her to wind down and practice reading and comprehension skills, but because learning to be disciplined is an important life skill. Check out Dr. David Walsh’s wonderful book to read more on the subject, “No: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It”.

In supporting your child’s cultivation of disciplined behavior, it is important to recognize that there must always be a balance. If your child watches their favorite TV program one night, encourage them to spend the next evening connecting with siblings or friends on a personal level. Similarly, hold firm to the adage “not until you do you homework,” but support the use of their free time once that bargain is upheld. By setting this example, you will coach your children to learn the benefits of discipline in their lives, with the expectation that eventually they will practice such self-discipline on their own.

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