One Trick for Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline

Self-disciplined people make a point to think before they act or speak. They think about where each particular choice will lead—to something positive or negative. They think ahead to see if they are going to be satisfied with the consequence that a particular choice will bring. If they are satisfied, they go ahead in that direction. If not, they think again and choose to act or speak differently—in a way that will bring a consequence that they can more happily accept. So, how do you help a child become more self-disciplined? The key is to hone the skill of asking reflective questions—questions that prompt the child to think. It’s not necessary for the youngster to tell the parent what the thoughts are. It’s enough just to pose the questions.

If you ask a question in a calm way, the youngster will think about it—even if the child will not admit a mistake or share thoughts with you. In fact, it’s even a good idea to say, “You don’t need to tell me what you’re thinking. That’s not so important. What is important is that you be honest with yourself.

Of course, a parent might be frustrated and angrily blurt out one of these questions:

“WHY did you do that?”

“WHAT on earth were you thinking of to say that?”

“HOW could you do such a thing?”

These kinds of questions immediately put a child on the spot and lead to defensiveness and confrontation. They encourage a child to make up excuses, become sullen or defiant, or blame his actions on circumstances or someone else. They will not prompt reflection or responsibility.

If you feel it necessary to have a suitable consequence for misbehavior or if you want to set up a procedure in the event that the same irresponsible choice occurs again, be sure that what is chosen comes from the youngster. For example, if you feel that your child’s suggestion is not appropriate, say “What else?” until you both agree. If the youngster has no ideas, offer a choice of several suggestions.

Or, your child might say something like, “If I do it again, I’ll have to miss my favorite TV show.” You could say, “Does that have anything to do with this particular situation?” The response then might be, “I’ll apologize,” or if that is not satisfactory to you, you might respond with, “And what else?” Then, if done again, it’s very clear what should occur. You would say, “What was it you said should happen if you did that again?” You will find that the youngster will sheepishly tell you what has been set up and then carry through with that consequence.

Your child takes responsibility for the actions—which is the goal.