Explains Reena Dabas, a psychology lecturer, counsellor and early childhood expert, “A child with self-discipline has internalised a set of rules, so that even when no parent is around, they will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner. It is important to develop and harness self-discipline at an early age, as it effectively paves a successful road to adulthood.”
Dabas observes that children who can exercise self-discipline at a young age seem to negotiate issues regarding family, school and friends more successfully than those who struggle to control themselves. As a result, self-disciplined children fare significantly better than their impulsive peers when they enter their adolescent years.
“A child with self-discipline has internalised a set of rules, so that even when no parent is around, they will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner. It is important to develop and harness self-discipline at an early age, as it effectively paves a successful road to adulthood.”
She adds, “Self-discipline also builds resilience and is a gateway to realising and accessing your inner strength. The ability to tap into this strength drives greater problem-solving ability when faced with difficult challenges.”
We list strategies to instil this invaluable trait in your mini-me.
1. Create a routine for your child
Dabas advises that you plan a good routine for your child and demonstrate discipline to them by following it with them for several days if the routine is new.
Do this by creating a daily schedule that your child can follow and get used to. For example, once your child starts school, set a consistent morning ritual for them. This includes a time for them to wake up in the morning, brush their teeth, get dressed, and have breakfast before leaving the house.
Of course, do be flexible and make room for exceptions, such as a night-out at dinner or the movies. But in general, ensure the routine is not frequently disrupted, and that junior can follow on his own without reminders from you.
2. Create an environment where self-control is rewarded
One crucial component of self-discipline is self-control, and children should be taught this early on.
Highlighting the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, Dabas elaborates, “Preschoolers were given the choice between eating one treat now or two treats later, and the kids who demonstrated the greatest capacity to wait ended up ― in subsequent years ― with better outcomes. They performed better on scholastic achievement tests, were more likely to finish college and less likely to develop substance abuse problems.”
She explains that the study reinforces the concept that impulsive actions lead to negative consequences, while self-control reaps better rewards. As such, parents can apply the “marshmallow test” by promising delayed rewards that are greater than the current pleasure if their children wait for it.
For example, tell your child that their playtime will be extended if they finish all their homework beforehand. Let them know that if they run off and play first, they’ll be called back to the study table and not have any free time to play before bed.
3. Play games that focus on impulse control
Dabas suggests games like the traditional “Red light, green light”. When your child hears the word “Green light!", he will be required to move forward. When he hears “Red light!”, he must freeze.
After your child has adjusted to the rules, reverse them. Make “Red light!" the cue to go and “Green light!" the cue to stop. Such games test a child’s ability to go against habit and inhibit his impulses, an important skill for developing self-discipline.
4. Reinforce desirable behaviour through affirmative words
Dabas says, “Praise and approval should be used liberally (although nor excessively) to encourage good behaviour and growth into a more mature human being.”
Therefore, don’t hesitate to praise your child whenever they demonstrate good self-discipline. For instance, when they spend their pocket money wisely and end up with a healthy amount of savings, or complete their chores before running out to play.
However, Dabas also cautions that parents should be careful with feedback. “Praising kids for general traits (such as “You’re so smart!”) makes them adopt the wrong mindset, and so does general criticism (“I'm so disappointed in you”),” she notes. “What works better is praise for effort, and feedback that encourages kids to try different strategies (“Can you think of another way to do it?").
“Praise and approval should be used liberally (although nor excessively) to encourage good behaviour and growth into a more mature human being.”
5. Be a consistent and good role model
Of course, one of the best ways to encourage self-discipline is to model that behaviour for your little one.
“Telling children to “do as I say, but not as I do” does not achieve effective discipline,” Dabas warns. “Children have to internalise many rules, and for that they require good behavioural models for which to pattern their own behaviour.”
6. Avoid harsh discipline methods
When you help junior develop self-discipline, it is more important that your offspring understand it as a teaching process, Dabas notes. “They should not associate it with intimidation, humiliation or embarrassment.”
Therefore, when your child slips up and makes mistakes (like neglecting to study for an exam and failing as a consequence), avoid punitive discipline measures such as caning, yelling or threatening them.
Rather, point out what they could have done better, and explain how a lack of self-discipline produces negative consequences.
Discipline is teaching, not punishing, and is most effective in an environment of empathy and unconditional love, Dabas says. “The goal of instilling self-discipline is not to produce compliant, obedient kids. Rather, the objective is to keep children safe and help them become responsible for their own actions and choices.”
Self-discipline skills to teach your child
Self-discipline encompasses many aspects, so the important self-discipline skills your child needs to know are:
* Self-control: With self-control, your child is able to postpone pleasure and can tolerate discomfort when necessary.
* Self-understanding: An awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, so they know which areas need to be worked on (such as procrastinating on their maths homework if maths is their least favourite subject) and how to build on their strengths.
* Self-motivation: With this skill, your child realises that even though they may not feel like doing something, they can’t let their emotions dictate whether or not to complete an important task (like preparing for a test or cleaning their room).
* Self-responsibility: Your child learns to be responsible for their own belongings, commitments and actions, without reminders from you.
* Self-regulation: Linked to self-control, a child with good self-regulation knows when to stop eating snacks or playing games on the computer. This involves a keen awareness of how much is “too much”.
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