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If you open your child’s toolbox of life skills, will you find self-discipline? Raise your hand if you can even define that word. Don’t feel bad if you can’t.

It’s one of those words we throw around but when someone asks for a definition, we pause and exclaim, “Well, you know, self-DISCIPLINE!” (If you say the second half of the word louder, it apparently defines itself!)

Here is a four-part definition that is specific enough to help parents see self-discipline in action. Does your child:

  1. balance “need to” with “want to”?
  2. do what needs to be done WHEN it needs to be done?
  3. stick with something, even when it’s hard?
  4. make short-term sacrifices for a long-term gain?

If you’re seeing some gaps in your child’s mastery of self-discipline, here are some ways to grow these essential skills.

*Your child WANTS to watch TV, play with friends, spend time on social media, etc.  He NEEDS to clean the bathroom, do his homework, set the table, etc. Sit down with him and put together a schedule that includes both WANTS and NEEDS, with approximate time requirements for each activity. When it’s on paper (or a whiteboard calendar), he will be able to see that, with careful planning, there is room for both.

*In this same conversation about scheduling, establish deadlines for those NEED TO’s, and put in place some consequences for not meeting the deadlines. For example: if the bathroom needs to be cleaned by Saturday at 5:00, then your child will not be able to do her fun Saturday night activity until the bathroom is clean. Or, if homework needs to be complete (and shown to you!) before the TV goes on at night, create a process—together--that holds her accountable for that daily deadline.

*Kids don’t always have persistence and they want to give up when the going gets tough.  Don’t let them! Help them problem-solve ways to get the information they need, finish the project, etc. If what they finish isn’t of acceptable quality, acknowledge them for having completed it and then discuss what they could do differently next time to improve their work. If the situation allows for it, have them redo the work until it meets expectations.

*When you teach self-discipline, you are likely to be met with eye-rolling, groans, and even tears. Tell your child (once) that the relatively short amount of time they spend getting something done, and doing it right, will pay off in improved skills. (Telling them twice officially makes it a lecture, which is a no-no!) Tolerate the attitude and encourage them through the process, but don’t let them give up.

Self-discipline develops in small increments over time, and it really is an essential life skill. So next time you are tempted to give in, procrastinate, or let your child off the hook (because it really is tempting sometimes!), think:  “What tool does she need in her toolbox?”

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