Three Keys to Successful Kids – Key 2: Self-Discipline

Last month I started a three-part series titled Three Keys to Success: Delayed Gratification, Self-Discipline and Curiosity focusing on some pivotal concepts we can instill in our children. I thought a nice transition would be into self-discipline.

Is self-discipline the exact same as delayed gratification? If you’re already working on teaching your kids delayed gratification, then aren’t you covering your bases with self-discipline?

Sure, self-discipline and delayed gratification are closely related – siblings even – but as most middle children would remind you, “we ARE different”! Self-discipline is the mechanism that builds the necessary willpower and conscientiousness in a child. Whereas putting off a reward is delayed gratification, self-discipline is the action and process that helps the child wait. It may also be used in learning to make better choices, to not choose the wrong even though we may feel like it.

As you start to teach your children about delayed gratification you’ll soon run into self-discipline. The moment you ask your child to wait you realize that you’ve got to have a strategy to combat the protest that may follow. All of the best teaching and correcting about delayed gratification can fall to pieces in minutes if your little person can find a way to tantrum their way out of it.

As you work with your kids on learning to wait, a key area I like to bring out with self-discipline is emotional regulation. Often kids learn that they have to wait for something, and that waiting creates frustration or anger. Waiting isn’t so much the problem as “I’m mad you’re not letting me have my way.” At that point kids try throwing an embarrassing tantrum right there in public. Delayed gratification creates all sorts of negative feelings, and self-discipline is learning to manage those feelings appropriately.

Start off by using feeling vocabulary. “I can tell you are upset about this. I’m sorry you feel bad, but this is what is happening.” You don’t need to change your course to make them feel better because kids need to learn how to manage their emotions. It is not ok to scream, yell or cause mischief just because something is happening that you don’t like. As my mom always told me “Life is not fair. Get used to it.” Although it may seem harsh, she was right. I needed to learn how to control my anger in a way that was healthy.

Give your kids alternatives and choices – this works beautifully on younger children – and reward or give consequences accordingly. With consistency they will get the idea and learn to predict the outcome of their choices. Once they know how you’re going to react when they pull a tantrum, and even more importantly, know that behavior isn’t going to work, they won’t use it.

School-aged and preteens can start to engage in more sophisticated ways of dealing with feelings – drawing, writing, listening to music. Encourage them to vent in a journal that is private (and when I mean private I mean you don’t go in their room and read it when they are at school). Or, if your kids need more external avenues, encourage sports, talking to safe people, and building a good support network.

Chores are also a great way to teach self-discipline. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really like ironing. We all have things we avoid like the plague, and that’s ok. The deal is that even though I don’t like it, I still have to do it. By having your kids do chores they learn great life skills, and also learn to work through those feelings of “I’m going to do this even if I don’t like it”.

If your kids can learn to accept that sometimes in life you’ve got to get things done, and then learn how to manage the feelings that result from that choice, they are better equipped to face real-world challenges. You know you want to be the parent that visits their kid in university and know that your kid was the one who still had clean clothes and dishes to eat off of!