Aha! Parenting Blog

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The Secret of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child

"Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life." - Steven Pinker

"You frequently mention "setting limits" and I am wondering if you can elaborate. I feel like I am not good at setting limits and my children probably feel like I am unpredictable with what I allow and what sets me off." -- Aurora

What does self-control have to do with setting limits?  Well, we can define "self-discipline" as controlling our impulses to give up something we want, in pursuit of something we want more.  And children develop self-discipline from the limits we set, as long as we set them with empathy.

Here's how it works.  Every time your child chooses to shift gears from what she wants to do, and practices regulating her impulses to make a better choice, she's building self-discipline muscle.  (Or, actually, neural pathways. But like muscle, these neural pathways get stronger with use, so you can think of it as building a stronger brain that's capable of harder work.)

So yes, that's why kids need limits. Permissive parenting doesn't help kids develop self-discipline because it doesn't ask them to exercise self control in pursuit of a larger goal.

There is a catch, though. The limits have to be empathic. Punitive limits--including "consequences"-- don't help kids learn to self-regulate, because the motivation comes from outside. The child isn't choosing to rein in his own impulse. So even if he does what you want, he's not actually "practicing" self discipline.

What do I mean? Think about your son practicing his jump shot over and over. He may want to sit down and rest, but there's something he wants more --a basket!  Being motivated toward a goal is a great way for kids to develop self-discipline. But kids also learn self discipline from the daily limits you set, as long as you set them with empathy.

Why is empathy essential to this process? Because your child is less likely to struggle against the limit. She may not like your limit, but she feels your understanding and compassion.  She knows you're on her side. So she chooses to stop fighting for what she wants, so she can have something she wants more -- to stay lovingly connected to you. She chooses to regulate her own impulses. She accepts your limit, and even internalizes it -- makes it her own.

That's how your child internalizes your rules and values. It begins with the connection--he WANTS to please you, as long as he doesn't have to give up his own integrity to do it.  Over time, he begins to think of himself as the kind of person who brushes his teeth, does his homework, tells the truth, and lends a helping hand. The kind of person who can apply himself with discipline to achieve his goals. That makes for a confident, happy, cooperative child.

Since your warm connection with your child is the reason he eventually accepts and internalizes your limits, it's critical to stay connected while you set limits.  And guess how you maintain that connection? Empathy!

So empathic limits are how your child develops self-discipline. Empathy is "feeling" the other person's point of view.  Setting limits is informing your child of a rule or expectation. Here's how you combine them:

"You love running, don't you?!  You can run all you want in the grass. Streets are not for running; streets are for cars.  You may hold my hand or I can carry you.  You can run by yourself again on the other side of the street."

"I see you're so mad at your brother.  You can be as mad as you want, but people are not for hitting.  Come, let's tell your brother how mad you are.  I'll help you."

"Wow, Sara put up those photos from Saturday on Facebook?  That's exciting. And the rule in our house is still that homework comes first.  You can Facebook once your homework is finished. I know, it's hard to wait! But it's something to look forward to."

If a limit is worth setting, it's worth being consistent about.  There may be times when a new limit is necessary:  "I have a headache and I can't handle noise right now"  but in general your child shouldn't be surprised by what you allow.  Every household has different priorities; mine are Safety & Health, Respectful Relationships, and Values (including academic responsibilities.)  Neatness and noise, not so much.

Why do you have to prioritize and give up some of what you expect?  Because your child is a human, and a developing one at that. She can't possibly be perfect. And your relationship with her needs to be more about connection and discovery than about limits and frustration. Saying No too often undermines your relationship. And therefore your child's self-discipline.

Tomorrow:  "But what if I set a limit and my child ignores it?"

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids


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