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.

Here are eight things you can do to help your child learn and practice self-discipline.


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 she knows what she's supposed to be doing, she'll 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. And 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 them 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 lengthy explanations or 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 his jacket as he runs out the door won't learn if a parent always delivers his jacket to the school. Facing the natural consequences of his behavior (like feeling cold at recess) might help remember to get his coat next time.

At other times, kids need logical consequences. A child who plays too rough with his mother’s computer might learn to be gentler when he loses his 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, "If you don't pick up your toys right now, you'll need to go to time-out." Follow through with a consequence if he doesn't pick up, but don't yell or try to force him into compliance.

Keep in mind that he needs to learn how to make healthy decisions on his own, by examining the potential consequences of his 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 his entire morning routine without any reminders, use a picture chart on the wall that depicts someone combing his hair, brushing his 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 he is able to look at the chart and do each task on his own. Eventually, he’ll need fewer reminders and won’t require the chart as his self-discipline improves.

Any time your child is learning a new skill or gaining more independence, help him 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 and 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 problem-solve 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 her outfit picked out the night before. Setting a timer for five minutes might also keep her on task.

More complex problems may require a series of trial and error type interventions.

A teenager who isn’t getting his homework done may need several changes before he becomes more motivated to get his work done on his own. Try removing a privilege. If that doesn’t work, try having him stay after school to see if he can get it done before he comes home.

Keep trying different solutions until you can find something that works while keeping him 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, eat too much, 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 his own bed at night may benefit from a sticker chart to motivate him. An older child who struggles to do his homework on time and get his 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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