Many experts debate whether or not to discipline or punish children. I wish more parents were equally concerned with raising a child who has integrated self-discipline.
Here's the thing, I'm overweight (we won't go into numbers, now, will we?) and somehow I cannot discipline myself about what food (or how much of it) I put in my mouth. I'm not still blaming my parents, I've managed to become disciplined in other areas. I think if I'd learned to discipline myself by the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I'd not need to continually struggle over weight.
As another example, I'm punctual, but only because it's really important to my husband, and I feel it respectful to be on time for clients and friends.
So, enough self-disclosure, let's think about how to help a child develop internal discipline.
Consistency and normalcy are key
There are many children who believe what happens in their nuclear family happens everywhere … because they’ve only ever lived in that familial culture.
“Five rules followed 100 percent of the time beats 10 rules followed 50 percent of the time.”
Consider whether or not it matters
If lights out at 8 p.m. is critical for your child’s mood the following day, so be it. If you have a child with a low sleep need, this may not be one of your rules.
Expect a normal child (i.e., don’t expect more than your child can deliver)
A child’s social development to follow "rules" starts at approximately the age of 3. If your child is developing quickly, your child may internalize or learn rules earlier. Chances are the rules you care most about are the last to be learned.
Assume good intentions
At least for the first time, chances are your child DOESN’T know better. Eventually, the child will know better, but by then s/he could be away at college. (See above.)
Emotions often muddy the issue: Stay calm
You wanted your child to do x, your child did y or the opposite of x. You’re disappointed. You’re angry. You’ve gone over this 27 billion times before and that kid STILL doesn’t do as you’ve asked.
If you act out your emotions, all the child learns is how to be emotional.
Use a time out—together
Ask the child to take time WITH you and focus on this. And take the time needed to calm your child, sit together to talk, get the child oriented to this subject.
Even though they remember what you forgot to put on the grocery list, it’s hard for them (yes, really) before the age of 7 or 8 to practice self-control and internalize all the rules.
Avoid punishment, unless it's necessary
When you explain and guide—even if that means YOU do the bulk of whatever it is that’s needed—the importance of the task is stressed. The more routine it becomes, the easier it will be for your child. Ultimately this becomes internalized, and your child will practice self-discipline.
If you don’t want your child to hurt others physically, eliminate physical punishment.
If you believe punishment must be used, the "sentence" should suit the "crime." If your emotions might be getting the best of you, check yourself.
Now, do you think I never lay hands on my children? Ask me about the time my 2-year-old son darted between cars into the street. He was so excited to be going! He wiggled away from me and headed for our car—across the street. Thank goodness, he was not hit by a car. However, when it became clear that reasoning wasn't going to make any impact, I calmly told him I would demonstrate what a car could do to him. He got a very hard smack to his posterior. Oh, did that get through to him!
Feel free to talk to the experts about punishing a child or disciplining your offspring and whether or not these are useful. I'll be over here, trying to teach children how to grow up to become self-disciplined adults.