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
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,
Parenting Styles and Disciplinary Practices
We are aware that the temperament and cognitive styles of some youngsters
from birth make it more difficult for them to develop self-discipline
than their peers. However, even considering the noticeable influence of
these innate factors on a child's functioning, we must appreciate the
vital role that caregivers assume in nurturing self-discipline in children.
All children need adults in their lives who will assist them to think
before they act, to reflect upon various options to challenging situations,
to realize that different consequences follow from their choices, and
to take responsibility for their behavior.
It is our strong belief that disciplinary practices that are based upon
a resilience model (i.e., practices that reinforce the characteristics
of a resilient mindset) will prove to be the most beneficial in supporting
the emergence of self-discipline. Adults must keep in mind that discipline
derives from the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process.
As a form of education, children should not associate discipline with
intimidation, humiliation, or embarrassment.
If discipline is placed in the context of an educational process, parents
can ponder, "What are the main goals of discipline?" While many
answers may be forthcoming, we believe that discipline has two major functions.
The first is to ensure that children have a consistent, safe, and secure
environment in which they can learn reasonable rules, limits, and consequences
as well as develop an understanding of why these are important. The second
function, equally important but not as readily emphasized, is to nurture
self-discipline or self-control.
We have found that many parents, some who are well-intended, may not demonstrate
behavior to nurture self-discipline in their children. When parents are
reactive, crisis-oriented, overly punitive, harsh, belittling, arbitrary,
or inconsistent, the positive goals of discipline are likely to suffer.
The development of self-discipline is also compromised when parents have
very different disciplinary styles or when parents are hesitant to set
limits for fear that their children will be angry with them; some children
take advantage of this fear by telling parents they don't love them when
consequences are enacted. Finally, children will struggle to develop self-discipline
when parents impose unrealistic expectations for behavior, resulting in
children becoming increasingly frustrated and angry.
Psychologists and other child development specialists have examined the
impact of different parenting and disciplinary styles on children. Diana
Baumrind distinguished three major styles, which we outline below.
Authoritative: These parents demonstrate warmth and involvement
with their children. They offer emotional support, but are also firm in
establishing guidelines, limits and expectations. They listen actively
to their children and encourage them to make their own decisions. When
appropriate, they involve their children in the process of creating rules
and consequences so that their children learn to understand and appreciate
the rationale for rules. They focus on positive feedback rather than on
punishment. Very importantly, authoritative parents recognize that discipline
is most effective when housed in the context of a loving relationship.
Also, the love shown is unconditional and not based on the child performing
or behaving in a particular manner.
Authoritarian: Although the words authoritative and authoritarian
sound similar, the parenting styles that are associated with each are
very different. Authoritarian parents are frequently not warm nor nurturing.
They do not easily take their children's feelings into consideration and
tend to be more rigid, imposing rules without discussing the rationale
with their children. They are quick to say, "You do it because I
told you to do it" or "You do it because I'm your mother (or
father)." They resort to authority and whether they realize it or
not, they basically seek compliance and obedience. Authoritarian parents
may certainly show love, but more often than not it is conditional, predicated
on a child behaving in ways that parents deem appropriate. Authoritarian
parents are likely to resort to corporal punishment rather than a problem-solving
approach when they feel their children are not complying with their demands
and/or have transgressed in some fashion.
Permissive: These parents are most noted for their failure
to establish realistic goals, expectations, and limits for their children.
Baumrind identified two kinds of permissive parents, the permissive-indulgent
and the disengaged. Permissive-indulgent parents may demonstrate
love and warmth, but they appear guided by the philosophy that "children
will learn on their own." They have difficulty setting rules and
limits. The child begins to "rule the roost." If parents eventually
attempt to establish limits and say "no." the child will often
resist, having become accustomed to being in charge. It is not unusual
for the parents to become exhausted and eventually defer to their child's
Disengaged parents do not indulge their children but rather fail
to provide structure and emotional nourishment. They are often neglectful.
The attachment between parent and child is tenuous at best. The positive
connections that serve as the foundation for emotional development and
well-being are absent.
In his book How to Handle a Hard-to-Handle Kid psychologist Dr.
C. Drew Edwards summarizes outcome research associated with these different
parenting styles. He notes, "Children of authoritative parents tend
to have healthy self-esteem, positive peer relationships, self-confidence,
independence, and school success. They also seem to have fewer emotional
difficulties than people who are raised with other styles of parenting.
These children cope well with stress, strive toward goals, and balance
self-control with curiosity and interest in a variety of situations."
Authoritative parents are not only the most effective disciplinarians
in promoting self-discipline when compared with the other disciplinary
styles, but in addition they are more likely to nurture a resilient, hopeful
mindset in their children.
The outcome for children raised by authoritarian parents is in marked
contrast to those growing up in households of authoritative parents. Edwards
observes, "Research has shown that children of authoritarian parents
may become inhibited, fearful, withdrawn, and at increased risk for depression.
They also may have a difficult time making decisions for themselves, since
they're used to being told what to do. Authoritarian parents don't tolerate
much disagreement, so their children tend to struggle with independence."
Edwards states that while some children of authoritarian parents are seemingly
well-behaved and present themselves as "good" children, others
begin to resist the demands of their parents and a negative, angry parent-child
Children raised by permissive-indulgent parents are described by Edwards
as classic "spoiled" children. "They tend to be noncompliant
with other adults. They are demanding, low in self-reliance, and lack
self-control. They don't set goals or enjoy responsible activities. They
may be pleasant and well behaved as long as things are going their way,
but become frustrated when their desires aren't met."
The disengaged style "seems to have the most negative effect upon
children. These children are at high risk for emotional and behavioral
problems, academic difficulties, low self-esteem, and alcohol or substance
abuse." It is little surprise to learn about this outcome for children
with disengaged, neglectful parents since they have failed to experience
unconditional love and acceptance.
As you reflect upon these different disciplinary styles, consider which
style best describes the one you use with your children. Ask, "Is
my style closest to an authoritative approach? If not, what must I do
to become an authoritative parent?" Your answers to these questions
and the subsequent actions you take will be very influential in determining
the ease with which your children develop self-discipline and lead a resilient
Back to Monthly Articles