According to David Brooks in “The Road to Character”, we become more disciplined, considerate and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship and refined enjoyment. Brooks talks about making disciplined, caring choices that create entrenched positive neural pathways.
The two phrases that stuck out to me in the above paragraph are, “a thousand small acts of self-control” and “disciplined, caring choices”. In the last year, I’ve done a reality check on my responsiveness capabilities. Am I consistently there for my priority people? Do I respond positively or begrudgingly? Thinking of responsiveness as small acts of self-control or disciplined, caring choices, reframes my view of how to improve this skill. I used to wonder if I was not kind or generous enough. Now I think I lack(ed) self-discipline. A lack of self-discipline kept (keeps) me from doing what was right for my significant people.
What is self-discipline?
Self-discipline is a skill. It is the ability to focus and overcome distractions. It is the ability to make ourselves do what we do not want to do and not do what we want to do. In many cases, it is doing what is right or good for us (or our children, our friends, our spouse, etc.) versus doing what is easy. It requires pause, conscious choice and delayed gratification.
Doing what is right versus what is easy
There is the tedium of micro-managing/helping with homework versus making dinner and talking with my kids. Each night also brings the choice of relaxing watching TV or reading with each child and tucking them in. These are just two examples of disciplined caring choices we have to make as parents now. Most of the time we try to do them all, but it is oh so tempting to give in to our desire for the easy and least effortful.
It takes all my self-control to help my kids with their homework instead of just asking about it while I put dinner together. I have a hard time multi-tasking, so asking me to go over homework when I’m making dinner, kind of blows my mind. I know I’ve responded irritably too many times. It takes self-discipline to do what is best for our children in the long run.
I remember when my kids were little we would be so exhausted by the end of the day but my ex-husband and I would trade-off who reads to whom each night. He would take the boys one night and I would read to our daughter, then we’d switch the next night. So many nights I dragged my weary ass upstairs to sit on the bed with one child or another. I so wanted to be done and watch a television show for adults (anything not on Nickelodeon or Disney Channel) or just go to bed and read to myself. I know I rushed the reading. I know I had a scowly face some nights. I’m sorry for those now. I know there were many sweet nights of reading funny stories and hearing my kids’ inner-most thoughts.
I stopped reading with my sons too early. I don’t remember exactly what age I stopped tucking them in but I believe they were in elementary school or early middle school. It was a relief to be ‘free’ a few minutes earlier each night but I know I missed out on more meaningful talks and bedtime giggles. I lacked the self-discipline to make myself do what I didn’t want to do. After learning about how important bedtime and wakeup rituals are, I’m now trying to rekindle a little of the connection each night by giving a face-to-face “Goodnight” and even a hug if my 15 and 17 year-old sons allow it.
Why our kids are bored, impatient and anxious
In her article, Why Are Our Children So Bored at School, Cannot Wait, Get Easily Frustrated and Have No Real Friends, Occupational Therapist, Victoria Prooday, talks about the decline in social, emotional and academic skills in children she’s seen over the last ten years. Parents indulge kids immediately or pass them off to some form of technology. Missing emotional availability re-wires our children’s brains for the worst. They don’t know how to read people and they have no ‘parental voice’ in their head telling them “No” or when to stop. Taking turns is hard because it takes patience and delayed gratification. Any kind of waiting puts kids into stress-mode.
Parents’ hands-off approach and default to whatever is easiest, leave kids with no limits, poor social awareness and no skills to persevere through effortful projects or tasks. Ask a child to practice handwriting and you’ll likely hear it is too hard or too boring. Imagine the frustration when they have to concentrate on a longer more effortful project? Perhaps this is the source of the rise in childhood anxiety?
It seems both parents and children could use practice with self-discipline. And it is a practice. It has to be applied consistently and long-term. Raising kids is the ultimate marathon in delayed gratification. It takes years to see the results of our work. Perhaps our own parents were permissive or absent, not giving us any guidelines for how to set limits and accomplish goals. That makes it harder to practice and teach our kids such skills. If we chronically procrastinate, self-indulge with TV, food, drugs, alcohol, internet surfing, shopping, sex, gambling, etc. then our self-discipline could use some work.
How to gain self-discipline
Where to start? Dr. Jonice Webb, therapist and author of “Running on Empty:Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect”, suggests starting small. Do a task like making our bed every day for a week. Change lightbulbs the second they burn out. Hang up our clothes at the end of each day. Pick one or two tasks and do them consistently for a week. If we mess up, start again. No berating ourselves. We are in training. It will take time.
Ms. Prooday strongly suggests limiting technology for the whole family. Make eye-contact with each other. Begin with no devices in the car or at meals. Learning to entertain ourselves without technology leads to reinforcement of positive brain pathways. We get to know ourselves better and our friends and family.
I suggest creating mini or major deadlines throughout the day. If you hit the deadlines, give yourself a healthy reward like time to read or quality time with an important person. As an introvert, I’m not overly fond of returning phone calls to people I do not know. Mark Twain has a quote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” I often try to do those unpleasant calls first thing in the morning, then I’ll let myself eat breakfast or work on something I enjoy.
Fitness is the ultimate self-discipline tool. It makes us do what we don’t want to do — get up early, run an extra mile, do an extra 15 reps. It gives us self-respect, self-confidence and good health in return.
Dr. Webb also recommends taking inventory of our priorities. Write down who or what we love most (keep it positive). If our children and our health are higher loves than we should use them to motivate us and give us the strength to say “No” to distractions like binge TV watching and stress-eating.
How it pays off
Developing our character and self-discipline is an arduous process but in doing so we live a more fulfilled and enriched life. In doing so, we give our children structure and limits. We show them we matter and so do they. We help them complete endeavors and treat people well in the future.
How would you rate your self-discipline? Where do you over-indulge? Where are you on task? How are you teaching your children self-discipline?