Who’s the Boss?

Promoting Children’s Self-discipline

Many of us find it exhausting to deal with adult-child power struggles around behavioral issues on a day-to-day basis. Young children become experts at figuring out how to “act out” to get what they want. Challenging behaviors can become the typical norm when adults “give in” to children’s strategies such as pouting, whining, screaming, and throwing physical tantrums.

When children learn self-discipline skills they acquire life skills in the areas of:

  • Initiative – to do something because it needs to be done          
  • Perseverance – to stay with something until it is complete       
  • Problem solving – to seek solutions in difficult situations        
  • Responsibility – to be accountable for your actions                  

Building Initiative skills

Children are more willing to do something when they understand why they should do it. They are more likely to cooperate when an adult explains the purpose and value for doing something, rather than just being told, “Because I said so.”

 For example, explain to children that when their room is clean and organized they will be able to find toys they want more easily. Toys that are put away properly have less chance of getting broken or lost. Providing explanations that make sense to children reduces the likelihood of a power struggle. 

After children do clean their room, it is important to acknowledge them for their success. You can tell them   something like: “Wow, how clean and organized you made your room. You’ll be able to easily find everything you want to play with!”  That will remind them why it made sense to do it.

Promoting Perseverance skills

It can be very hard to stick with doing something that is physically and/or mentally challenging, for adults as well as children. After a busy day you may be tired when you are with the children again. It can be daunting to think of a new set of tasks, now involving them. 

However, teaching children to be responsible and stay with a task, such as finishing a puzzle or completing homework assignments, requires you to model perseverance yourself. If your children see you following through, they will be more receptive to your support as you help them follow through.

Be sure to schedule breaks, healthy treats and rewards for yourself, as well as for your children, during your tasks together. For example, including a break before and during homework time can make it easier for them to get started and for you to assist them.

Providing a physical activity before engaging in intense concentration can help to stimulate the brain. Examples: take a brief walk around the block together; put on music and briefly move to it together, or do a “freeze dance” together. Laughing together makes it easier to settle down to tasks together.

As your children stay working on their activities, be sure to give them positive comments about their efforts. “You have almost put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. You’re so close to being done.” “You finished all of the spelling part of your homework! Let’s take a short break and we’ll look at what you will be working on for math.”

When your children have completed what they are working on, be sure to acknowledge them for their persistence and success. They will learn that perseverance is a life skill that makes them feel happy and satisfied.

Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills

Children readily gain problem solving skills as they learn to take more control over their behavioral responses to situations that upset them. When we are frightened or angry, our bodies release chemicals to the brain that interfere with our ability to make rational decisions, or to come up with creative ideas for solving a problem.

When your children are very upset, ask them to sit and take a deep breath. Sit with them and model what you want them to do. Breathe in and out deeply with them until they become calmer. 

Next ask them to explain what happened that upset them so much. Then say, “I think the problem is _________?” Is that right? If the child says no, ask them to explain it another way or try to show you what occurred. 

If the children says yes, that you do understand it correctly, encourage them to start thinking of ways to solve the problem. Examples: 

  • A tower they were building fell over. The child says s/he can build it again. You can offer to help.
  • A cousin says he had the toy first. Your child is very upset, but you get her to calm down. Then you say, “It sounds like the problem is that both of you want the toy. I wonder how that problem can be solved.”

Most times both of the children want to contribute ways to solve the problem. It is rewarding when you hear their ideas and support them in reaching a solution. Be sure to acknowledge them for their ideas and working together.  And both children will be gaining skills they can apply to future situations!

Taking Responsibility

Children with low self-discipline skills often blame others for problem situations that they created themselves.

Teaching children to acknowledge when something is at least partly their own fault is very challenging when blaming others has become a consistent behavior pattern. 

Especially when a situation involves physical fighting, identifying what happened as a problem, rather than blaming it on a person, will help the children involved to describe it more accurately. Otherwise they often just blame each other, which does not contribute to coming up with the facts or reaching a solution.

Once the children have calmed down, and the details of the problem become clear, the children can begin to offer ideas to resolve the situation and discuss solutions that could prevent the problem from occurring again. 

If your children deny their responsibility in the conflict, then you can review the situation with them since you know the details and explain that it is important to be honest. You can only provide guidance and support to them when they take responsibility for things they do. 

Be sure to acknowledge them for collaborating with others involved and contributing ideas for solving a problem that arose. And discuss with them ways to avoid the same problem from happening again.

Books Related to Self-Discipline

Mercer Mayer

This collection consists of 7 classic stories about growing up and the issues that need to be navigated by young children. Story titles include: “Just Go To Bed” and “I Was So Mad”.

by James Dean and Eric Litwin

 Pete uses his problem-solving skills to manage his emotions about losing his groovy buttons. Children and adults alike will be entertained by his positive approach to his situation.

Mercer Mayer

When children have self-discipline skills, they are more likely to make rational decisions about handling fearful or challenging situations. You will enjoy reading how the little boy in this book deals with his night time worry by using a very original approach!

by Arnold Lobel

 This book of original and funny fables provides a moral at the end of each one-page story. When presenting parent workshops on children’s behaviors, I often began the event by reading one story and its moral, relating to the specific topic we would be discussing. Laughter is a great connector!

Toys That Build Self-discipline Skills

This toy is excellent for building children’s abilities with patience, self-discipline, and coordination. This version comes in a wooden box with a lid for easy clean-up and storage on a toy shelf.

 This set of 4 wooden puzzles provides children and family members with an opportunity to explore how to patiently try different ways to fit the pieces together. The assembled pictures are colorful and familiar, which will encourage children to stick to the task of completing each puzzle.

This game that involves racing, chasing and capture provides many opportunities for children to increase their math, social and self-discipline skills. When a person’s pawn is captured and sent back to home, s/he has to start the race over again. Adults can model self-control when that happens to their pawn and encourage children who become frustrated to practice self-control strategies with them.

 This Go Fish card set offers a variety of games for children ages toddler and older. Sometimes children become frustrated when someone else cannot provide them with a card they need while playing the traditional Go Fish game. Here’s another opportunity for them to practice using self-discipline skills.

Much of this article has centered on creating positive interactions and environments, as well as resolving conflicts that do arise. In a consistent, caring environment, where rules and behaviors make sense, problems are less likely to arise in the first place.

Karen is an Early Childhood Specialist with more than 40 years of experience in teaching, consulting, and curriculum development for young children.

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