What does supporting the development of your child's inner discipline look like in practice, both in the classroom and at home? It means discipline isn’t about taking something away; it’s about repeatedly teaching the child what to do instead, as well as illustrating and explaining the natural consequences of specific actions. Helping a child to develop inner discipline is an art and a science. To showcase this approach in action, here are four tips that illustrate different aspects of helping a child develop inner discipline.
- Use clear language to emphasize causality. For example, use if-then phrasing.
When you consistently set clear expectations to help your child understand what he needs to do, your child will start to see the patterns and choose the behaviors that get the results he wants. For example: "if you want to carry your water glass to the table yourself, then you need to hold it like this so that the water doesn't spill." Or, "if you want to have time to stop at the park on the way home, then you need to get your shoes and coat on quickly!” A child’s motivation to choose or master a certain behavior will come from his eagerness to take advantage of the opportunity the behavior makes possible.
In the classroom, for example, your child’s teacher might say, “If you want to go outside, then you need to quietly line up in front of the door so that we're ready to go out together.” She can carefully list all of the steps in the process, and explain why each step is necessary. "We need to put outdoor shoes on to keep our classroom clean. We need to put our jackets on to keep us warm. We need to wear our hats so we don't sunburn our noses, because sunburns hurt!" Instead of focusing on punishing the students by taking away recess time, we focus on having them understand the expectation and the causal relationship between their actions and the opportunity.
It is important to emphasize that the more this general approach is modeled and practiced, the more children come to trust that the adults around them are giving them clear and correct information. When they see and feel this consistency, they learn to depend on the patterns around them, and they have less motivation to protest in any particular situation. A culture of inner discipline is created as children develop their understandings based on clear expectations and evident causality. The trusting relationship that is built encourages the child to see the adult as a person who gives important information that will help him to achieve his goals.
- Help the child consider the natural consequences of various choices.
Whenever possible, adjusting for your child's age, help your child actively think through the consequences of chosen actions in a way that he can understand. Remember that a child who is hungry, tired, or overwhelmed is not going to be able to reason effectively. In that case, depending on your child's age, you may want to bring the situation up later to help the child understand.
For example, say that your older child really, really wants to stay up late on a school night. Rather than giving a hard and fast, "no," you could ask, “How do you feel when you stay up late then wake up early? Do you feel tired? Do you think it would feel good to be tired at school?” The goal is to validate the child’s desire by taking it seriously, and by thinking the situation through with him. If you work with the child in this way, you avoid turning the situation into a power struggle. Often if a child is ready to understand a point, with a little help in bringing the understanding to mind, he can do the work of changing his own motivations.
- Permit maximum freedom within a range of choices.
Depending on age, a child will be more or less ready to make certain choices. Sometimes, making a meaningful choice requires understanding a complex series of events, or a payoff that is too abstract or too far away in time. If expected to make choices in such situations, your child can be disappointed by the consequences of his choice, or frustrated when trying to choose between too many options and associated consequences.
To help your child develop the ability to make choices, start by simplifying the situation as much as you can, and offer more complex options as your child gets older and develops confidence in her ability to choose. By simplifying the options, you reinforce your child's need to have an authentic experience of control while ensuring that the outcome is beneficial or, at least, not harmful to your child. When your child consistently has the opportunity to practice making choices that are appropriate to his age and understanding, he develops trust in himself, and, over time, he learns how to evaluate his options more and more effectively.
If you know your child can’t make an informed choice in a situation, avoid offering the choice. Instead, clearly let the child know what will happen, comfort him if he is upset, and draw his attention to the realm in which he does have choice. Over time, your child's natural developmental process will lead to the expansion of the number and kinds of choices that he is ready to make.
No matter the age of the child, the basic method to pursue is to limit the scope of choice appropriate to the child's age and ability. The Montessori classroom for each age range is designed based on this principle. The materials on the shelves are specific and limited, and the teacher’s job is to direct students to the areas of the classroom, or the realms of work, where he is capable of free action. If a young child is struggling to choose, she may offer a suggestion like: “You can pick anything from this shelf,” and direct him to a practical life shelf with a number of activities that he has already mastered. At home, if your young child needs to put on his shoes, you may say, “Do you want to put on this pair of shoes, or that pair of shoes?" so that he chooses within those parameters. In the elementary program, children may choose from a much broader range of work, including work choices that aren't represented inside the classroom, such as large research projects, or community-based charity or entrepreneurial projects.
- Validate a child's emotions.
Of course, sometimes a child is going to want to take an action that is not permissible. A preschool-age child doesn’t always understand why he is allowed to make some choices, but not others. Why can he choose what he has for dinner, but not when he has dinner? Why can he choose what to wear to school, but not whether he has to go to school in the first place? As an adult, you can help the child master himself in these frustrating moments by acknowledging his emotions. "You really wanted to wear your boots today! You are not in the mood for shoes! You're sad and mad about it." Be sure to allow your child time to experience the disappointment, and remember to save any reasoning or discussion until the initial emotion has run its course.
As a parent, your greatest ally is the child’s own desire to grow, to learn, to master her own emotions, and to develop her own character. By keeping calm and respecting your child and her desires, you can help her on her own quest for inner discipline. By setting clear expectations and supporting your child's active thought and reflection, you can support the sense of personal autonomy she is naturally seeking as she follows her own unique path to physical, emotional, and intellectual independence.