Disciplinary Practices, Parenting Styles, and The Development of Self-Discipline
Dr. Sam Goldstein and I recently completed the manuscript for our newest book, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child to Become More Responsible, Confident, and Resilient, to be published next fall by McGraw-Hill. The book focuses on the application of disciplinary practices that promote self-discipline, responsibility, and resilience rather than anger and resentment in children. While we have highlighted the close link between self-discipline and resilience in several of our earlier writings, it was our belief that a book devoted exclusively to examining disciplinary practices and the emergence of self-discipline was warranted. This belief is constantly reinforced by the many questions that are posed about discipline in our clinical practices and workshops.
In preparing and reflecting upon the manuscript, Sam and I came to appreciate even more strongly the impact of self-discipline on our lives. Consequently, we decided that we would co-author several articles based upon our new book to appear on both of our websites. In this article, we describe the essential role of self-discipline in a child's life and the different forms of disciplinary techniques applied by parents.
The Power of Self-Discipline
The need to develop and harness self-discipline at an early age, while critical in any culture, may take on greater importance in a society filled with complex demands, challenges, and stresses. When self-discipline is effectively learned during childhood, there is a greater likelihood of successful coping and accomplishment in adulthood. Thus, it is not surprising that in our fast paced, often chaotic world, children capable of implementing self-discipline at young ages appear to negotiate the maze of family, school, friends, and community more successfully than those who struggle with this ability. Effective self-discipline implies that a child has internalized a set of rules so that even without the presence of a parent or other caregiver, the child will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner.
Self-discipline can be understood as a vital component of a sense of ownership and responsibility for one's behavior. A large body of research has demonstrated that children capable of resisting temptation--a simple example of self-discipline at all ages--fare significantly better than their more impulsive peers as they transition into their adolescent years. For example, one research team demonstrated that a preschool child's ability to resist an attractive snack when requested to do so was a significant predictor of a host of positive outcomes in adolescence, including school success, mental health, and avoiding the juvenile justice system. The power of self-discipline to impact on the course of a child and adult's life should never be underestimated.
In previous books we have suggested that parents who raise resilient youngsters follow a blueprint of important principles, ideas, and actions. They recognize that a primary goal in all of their interactions with their children is to nurture a resilient mindset that includes a number of important qualities and skills including: learning to communicate, being empathic, dealing constructively with both successes and setbacks, identifying and reinforcing one's strengths or "islands of competence" while not avoiding problematic areas, possessing problem-solving and decision-making skills, developing a social conscience, and contributing to the welfare of others. In writing about these qualities, we have not only defined the steps necessary for parents and other caregivers to successfully implement the teaching of these skills, but we have also identified the obstacles that often prevent adults from assisting children to develop these skills.
We have come to realize that among the most significant of these obstacles is when children lack self-discipline and parents are at a loss as to how to instill this quality in their children. In fact, all of the other attributes of resilience are compromised if children lack the necessary self-discipline to put them into effective practice. That is, knowing what to do (e.g., considering different options before taking action) does not guarantee that children will do what they know (e.g., actually considering these different options) in the absence of self-discipline to do so.
Unfortunately, in our experience we have found that many people offer facile excuses for poor self-discipline, failing to appreciate that the ability to honestly appraise one's decisions and their outcomes as well as to learn from them is a key component to living a resilient, self-disciplined life.
Experienced teachers recognize the importance of self-discipline. Neil Abrahams, a mathematics teacher in the Houston School District, writes, "Teachers need to be able to count on students' self-discipline if they are to succeed. Yet America's youth culture and consumerism hinder the development of the self-discipline that is necessary for learning." Abrahams hypothesizes that self-discipline may be more responsible for differences in achievement than any other factor. We agree with his assertion.
Writing in the Australian on June 14, 2006, Cordelia Fine, a Research Fellow at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne in Australia, describes the work of Amelia Duckworth and Martin Seligman published in the Journal of Psychological Science. Fine notes the authors' conclusions:
"Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline. We believe that many of America's children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."
In the fall of a recent school year, Duckworth and Seligman evaluated 140 eighth grade students. Each was given an I.Q. test. Then they, their parents, and teachers answered questionnaires about self-discipline. Are you good at resisting temptation? Can you work effectively towards long-term goals? Do pleasure and fun sometimes keep you from getting work done? The students were also given a real-life test of their ability to delay gratification. Each was handed a dollar bill in an envelope. They could choose either to keep it or hand it back and get two dollars a week later. Their decision was carefully recorded.
In the spring of that school year, Duckworth and Seligman returned to this group of students. They took note of each student's grades and compared grades to the data they collected in the previous fall. They wanted to identify the most important factors influencing school achievement and grades. They discovered that by far the best predictor of grades was self-discipline. Each student's capacity for self-discipline was twice as important as his or her I.Q. when it came to predicting academic success. Self-discipline was also the most powerful variable in predicting high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held consistent even when controlling for first marking period grades, achievement test scores, and, as noted, measured I.Q.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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