8 Ways to Teach Kids Self-Discipline Skills

No matter which type of discipline you use with your child, the ultimate goal of your parenting strategy should be to teach your child self-discipline.

Self-discipline helps kids delay gratification, resist unhealthy temptations, and tolerate the discomfort needed to reach their long-term goals. From choosing to turn off the video game to work on homework, to resisting an extra cookie when Mom isn't looking, self-discipline is the key to helping kids become responsible adults. 

It's important to give kids the skills they need to develop self-discipline as well as an opportunity to practice making good choices.


Provide Structure

Self-discipline helps kids delay gratification.
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Create a similar schedule every day and your child will get used to the routine. When they know what they are supposed to be doing, they will be less likely to get derailed by other activities.

A good morning routine helps kids know when it's time to eat breakfast, comb their hair, brush their teeth, and get dressed. A good after-school routine teaches kids how to divide their time between chores, homework, and fun activities. And a consistent bedtime routine will help kids settle down and fall asleep faster.

Keep your child's routines simple. With practice, your child will learn to implement the routine without your assistance.


Explain the Reason Behind Your Rules

When it comes to helping kids learn how to make healthy choices, an authoritative approach is best because it helps kids understand the reasons for the rules.

Instead of saying, “Do your homework now because I said so,” explain the underlying reason for the rule.

Say, “It’s a good choice to do your homework first and then have free time later, as a reward for getting your work done.” This helps your child to understand the underlying reasons for your rules. Instead of saying, "My mom said I have to do this," your child will understand the rules serve a purpose. 

Of course, you don't want to launch into lengthy lectures that will bore your child. But a quick explanation about why you think certain choices are important can help your child understand choices better.


Give Consequences

Sometimes, natural consequences can teach some of life's greatest lessons. A child who constantly forgets to grab their jacket as they run out the door won't learn if a parent always delivers their jacket to the school. Facing the natural consequences of their behavior (like feeling cold at recess) might help them remember to get their coat next time.

At other times, kids need logical consequences. A child who plays too rough with their mother’s computer might learn to be gentler when they lose computer privileges. Or a child who has trouble getting up in the morning may need an earlier bedtime that night.

It’s important to avoid power struggles. Trying to force your child to do something won't teach self-discipline.

Explain what the negative consequences will be if your child makes a poor choice. Then, let your child make the choice.

Say, "When you pick up your toys, you'll have more time to play outside." Follow through with a consequence if they don't pick up, but don't yell or try to force them into compliance.

Keep in mind that kids need to learn how to make healthy decisions on their own, by examining the potential consequences of their behavior.


Shape Behavior One Step at a Time

Self-discipline is a process that takes years to hone and refine. Use age-appropriate discipline strategies to shape behavior one step at a time.

Instead of expecting a 6-year-old to suddenly be able to do their entire morning routine without any reminders, use a picture chart on the wall that depicts combing hair, brushing teeth, and getting dressed. You can even take pictures of your child doing these activities and create your own chart.

When necessary, provide reminders to your child to look at the chart until they are able to look at the chart and do each task on his own. Eventually, they will need fewer reminders and won’t require the chart at all.

Any time your child is learning a new skill or gaining more independence, help them do so one small step at a time.


Praise Good Behavior

Provide positive attention and praise whenever your child demonstrates self-discipline. Point out the good behavior you want to see more often. For example, instead of saying, "Good job not hitting your brother when you were mad," say, "Good job using your words to solve the problem."

Sometimes good behavior goes unnoticed. Giving kids praise for making good choices increases the likelihood that they’ll repeat that behavior.

Provide praise when kids do things without requiring reminders. Say, “Great job sitting down to do your homework before I even told you to!” or “I’m so proud that you chose to clean your room today all on your own.” Even saying, “Great job putting your dish in the sink when you were done eating,” can encourage a repeat performance.


Teach Problem-Solving Skills

Teach problem-solving skills and work together to correct specific issues related to self-discipline. Sometimes, asking kids what they think would be helpful can be an eye-opening experience that can lead to creative solutions.

There may be a fairly simple solution to a behavior problem. A child who struggles to get dressed in time for school may benefit from having their outfit picked out the night before. Setting a timer for five minutes might also keep them on task.

More complex problems may require a series of trial and error type interventions. A teenager who isn’t getting their homework done may need several changes before they become more motivated to get their work done on their own. Try removing a privilege. If that doesn’t work, try having them stay after school to see if they can get their work done before they come home.

Keep trying different solutions until you can find something that works while keeping your child involved in the process.


Model Self-Discipline

Kids learn best by watching adults. If your child sees you procrastinating or choosing to watch TV instead of doing the dishes, they’ll pick up on your habits. Make it a priority to model self-discipline

Pay attention to areas where you might struggle with discipline. Perhaps you spend too much money or lose your temper when you're angry. Work on those areas and make it clear to your child that you seek to do better.


Reward Good Behavior

A reward system can target specific behavior problems. A preschooler who struggles to stay in their own bed at night may benefit from a sticker chart to motivate them. An older child who struggles to do homework on time and get chores done may benefit from a token economy system.

Reward systems should be short-term. Phase them out as your child begins to gain self-discipline.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of rewards that don’t cost money. Use extra privileges, like electronics time, to motivate your child to become more responsible. 

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.