The Secret of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child

Photography: Katherine Heise

By Dr Laura Markham

“Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.” – Steven Pinker 

“You frequently mention “setting limits” and I am wondering if you can elaborate. I feel like I am not good at setting limits and my children probably feel like I am unpredictable with what I allow and what sets me off.” -Aurora

What does Aurora’s question about setting limits have to do with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s opinion on self-control? Our children learn self-control from the limits we set. But — and this is critical — only if we set those limits with empathy.

Here’s how it works.

We can define self control, or “self-discipline” as controlling our impulses so that we’re able to meet our own goals. Specifically, when we exercise self-discipline, we’re usually giving up something we want, in pursuit of something we want more.

So every time your child chooses to shift gears from what she wants to do, to follow your lead, she practices regulating her impulses. She’s building self-discipline muscle. (Or, actually, neural pathways. But like muscle, these neural pathways get stronger with use, so you can think of it as building a stronger brain that’s capable of harder work.)

So yes, that’s why kids need limits. Permissive parenting doesn’t help kids develop self-discipline because it doesn’t ask them to exercise self control in pursuit of their larger goal.

Punitive limits -including “consequences” – don’t help kids learn to self-regulate, because the discipline comes from outside.

There is a catch, though. The limits have to be empathic, so the child chooses to follow them. Punitive limits -including “consequences” – don’t help kids learn to self-regulate, because the discipline comes from outside. The child isn’t choosing to rein in his own impulse. So even if he does what you want, he’s not actually “practicing” self discipline and building that mental muscle.

What do I mean? Think about your son practicing his jump shot over and over. He may want to sit down and rest, but there’s something he wants more – a basket!  Being motivated toward a goal is a great way for kids to develop self-discipline.

But kids also learn self discipline from the daily limits you set, as long as you set them with empathy. Why is empathy essential to this process? Because your child is less likely to struggle against the limit. She may not like your limit, but she feels your understanding and compassion. She knows you’re on her side. So she chooses to stop fighting for what she wants, so she can have something she wants more – to stay lovingly connected to you, even to be “like” you. She chooses to regulate her own impulses. She accepts your limit, and even internalizes it – makes it her own.

That’s how your child internalizes your rules and values. It begins with the connection – he WANTS to please you, as long as he doesn’t have to give up his own integrity to do it. Over time, he begins to think of himself as the kind of person who brushes his teeth, does his homework, tells the truth, and lends a helping hand. The kind of person who can apply himself with discipline to achieve his goals. That makes for a confident, happy, cooperative child.

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