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The Importance of Teaching Kids Self-Discipline

Teach kids to become more responsible


A boy doing homework
Akiko Aoki/Moment/Getty Images

Self-discipline is one of the six most important life skills that every child should learn. When kids develop good discipline habits, they become better prepared to handle problems and reduce stress, which will serve them well throughout their lives.

One of the four biggest discipline mistakes parents make is only looking at the short-term. And in the short-term, it is often easier to do things for kids or offer them repeated reminders to get things done. However, in the long-term, kids need to learn self-discipline skills so they can make healthy choices on their own.

What Self-Discipline Means

Just because a child is well-behaved, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has self-discipline. Kids with self-discipline are motivated to behave responsibly, even when their parents aren’t watching. They can choose to forgo immediate gratification and can make good choices without much input from parents.

Kids who have self-discipline have control over their emotions. They’ve learned anger management skills and are able to control impulsive behavior. They can respond respectfully when adults correct them and they can take responsibility for their behavior.

They’ve also learned to make healthy choices for themselves based on weighing the pros and cons of their choices instead of just saying, “I have to do this because my parents said so.” They can make healthy choices in terms of chores, homework, money, peer pressure and self-care.

When kids lack self-discipline, parents often end up taking more responsibility for the child’s behavior. For example, when a mother repeatedly nags her child to do his homework, she puts in more effort than the child does to get the work done. The child learns to do his homework only because he wants his mother to stop nagging, not because he’s learned self-discipline.

Teaching kids self-discipline skills while they’re young can help them throughout their lives. People who never learn self-discipline skills tend to struggle to keep healthy habits, even into adulthood. Managing school work, employment, money and household responsibilities all require self-discipline. Adults who lack self-discipline may struggle with problems such as time management and money management.

Examples of what can happen when kids lack self-discipline:

  • A 4-year-old interrupts conversations between adults repeatedly because he can’t wait for his turn to speak.
  • A 6-year-old constantly gets up out of bed because she has trouble tolerating waiting in her room alone to fall asleep.
  • An 8-year-old sneaks junk food and soda the minute his parents are out of his site.
  • A 10-year-old chooses to talk to his friends and stare out the window rather than use his class time to finish his work.
  • A 12-year-old says he wants to learn how to play the violin but he never chooses to spend any time practicing.
  • A 14-year-old accepts a dare from a friend and attempts to steal a candy bar from a store.
  • A 16-year-old can’t resist answering a text message while she’s driving.
  • An 18-year-old chooses to spend time socializing instead of doing the work necessary for her college classes.

Examples of what can happen when kids learn self-discipline:

  • A 4-year-old asks an adult for help, instead of retaliating aggressively, when a peer takes her toy.
  • A 6-year-old dresses himself right after breakfast without needing a reminder.
  • An 8-year-old child chooses not to join in when her friends start playing pass with a ball on the bus.
  • A 10-year-old sits down to do his homework after he eats his after school snack.
  • A 12-year-old saves her allowance money each week until she can purchase a new game that she has been wanting.
  • A 14-year-old tells his friends he can’t come over because he needs to study for a test.
  • A 16-year-old chooses not to go to a party with friends because she thinks there may be some underage drinking at the party.
  • An 18-year-old chooses not to cheat on a test when his friend offers him the answers.

Teaching Self-Discipline Skills

Learning self-discipline is a life-long process and all kids will struggle with self-discipline at various times. Parents can give kids age appropriate tools to help them practice using self-discipline throughout their childhood and teenage years. There are lots of ways to teach self-discipline skills and parents can use a variety of discipline strategies to help kids become more responsible.

The good news is, the more self-disciplined children become, the less discipline they’ll need from parents. When a child takes responsibility to brush his teeth on his own, get ready for school on time, and do his homework, it means less arguing, nagging and negative consequences. Instead, parents can focus on teaching new skills and building a positive relationship.

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