The 4 Essential Steps to Mastering Discipline (hint: NOT just for martial artists 🙂 )
Often times we have parents bring their kids in to try martial arts because they want them to have discipline. They usually know someone who currently has their child in our program and has seen amazing improvements and they wonder what made all the difference. They say “wow, he’s so well behaved now… what changed?” and the enrolled parent will say “Martial Arts”…and that’ll be the end of it.
This leads to the illusion that martial arts will automatically teach discipline. You put them in; a disciplined kid comes out. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. It’s a community approach. Often people mistakenly claim martial arts just happens to teach discipline. This is not always the case. Not all martial arts are equal, some have different focuses, but many instructors and enthusiasts just blurt out discipline without really understanding what that means. So I wanted to share a little about our approach to teaching good discipline to kids.
Despite what’s often advertised, discipline doesn’t just happen magically while they’re kicking and punching, and if anyone implies that, they are either lying or misinformed. I want to share this with you because we seem to have an epidemic lack of discipline in kids, and we can only really cure that problem together. For example, if a child is surrounded most of the time by undisciplined peers, teachers, and family and then they come to us for character development training for a few hours each week, their odds of learning discipline are preeeeeetty slim. However, if more people are on the same page with what good discipline is, the more likely we can improve our community.
Many of us are afraid of disciplining our kids because we’re confused about what discipline means. There’s a good chance we were brought up in a home where we got the crap kicked out of us whenever we messed up or we were in an environment where we only ever really heard our parents speak when they were criticizing us. We were taught incorrectly that this is discipline, which of course it is not. Now, as a result, when we have kids of our own we vow not to be like that, we don’t want to punish kids harshly, degrade them, lower their self esteem. This is all well intentioned but the result is we swung the pendulum in the other direction to the point where many of our kids aren’t getting the guidance they need to navigate life after we’re gone.
I am in NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM suggesting we need to swing it back and start beating our kids. Instead of swinging the pendulum side to side, we need to think forward instead; we need to evolve. The problem is the false associations we pinned with discipline. What do you think about when you hear the word discipline? Many people still think of spanking, degrading, criticizing, yelling, etc. Therein lays the issue. We’ve given it a negative connotation and therefore sided on throwing it out with the bathwater.
Instead, we need to think of Discipline as conditioning our behaviour through guidance, inspiration, coaching, and enforcing rules. Likewise we need to think of Self-Discipline as conditioning our own behaviour. This doesn’t have to mean punishing the behaviour you don’t want (reactive). Rather it can mean encouraging and inspiring the behaviour you do want (proactive). This is not bribery, so if your mind went there, put a pin in that as another false-association. Bribery is the last ditch effort, the hail-marry pass to see if you can just get your kid to do what they’re supposed to do, and if it works, you’ve bought yourself 30 minutes of peace, but you’ve laid the ground work for worse behaviour in the future.
The First step to having kids with fantastic discipline…you’re not going to like it…is having fantastic discipline yourself. This doesn’t mean we have to be perfect and rid ourselves of all our bad habits or else we’re bad parents. It means we have to work on conditioning our own behaviour; slowly weeding out habits that don’t serve us and replacing them with habits that do serve us. This is not a destination, but a journey that we must all be on, and it won’t end until the shows over. The by-product of this is, while we’re setting a great example for our kids, we’re probably going to accomplish a whole lot of things we want for ourselves anyway.
The truth is that our kids learn primarily from what we do, not from what we say. We can talk to them about discipline until we’re blue in the face, but if they see us constantly giving in to our bad habits and impulsive behaviour, it wouldn’t be fair to expect different of them. Now, you won’t see them step outside for a smoke, stress-reducing wine in hand, but you will see them glued to their tablet watching endless youtube videos, or playing Fortnight for hours with no sign of self-restraint in sight. Different drug, but same concept. (By the way, if you don’t think the tablet is a drug, try taking it away from the kid without warning.)
The second step (and the key to having good discipline for yourself) is consistency. Consistency is the foundation that discipline rests upon. A lot of people see self-discipline as the ability to say no to giving into bad habits. That is not self discipline, that’s will power. Will power is a very limited resource and usually not consistent, so we don’t want to rely on it. People usually falsely credit will power for dropping habits. Will power may have got an action started, but it was self discipline that ultimately did the work. Self Discipline is conditioning your own behaviour through consistent action. This will ultimately lead to making a habit…a good habit. Disciplining your kids is conditioning their behaviour through your consistent action, which will also lead to good habits. If we set limits for our kids to condition their behaviour, but then only enforce those limits when it’s convenient, then they really aren’t limits at all, they’re more like discipline-flavoured hobbies. Easy to say, I know, much harder to do, which is why we need to have discipline ourselves. The third step will help…
The third step we need to take in developing discipline in our kids and in ourselves is commitment. We need to have commitments to make it worth it for us to set aside unproductive habits. We need to stick to those when it’s not easy. We need to stick to them when the original excitement and ambition wears off. When kids have their own internalized reason for acting a certain way they are way more likely to act with discipline. Much more so than if they’re just told to act a certain way. This is why we teach our kids goal setting. Goal setting is essential. Goal setting allows them to start learning the difference between choosing what they want most, and choosing what they want now. When we look at world class athletes that are known to have world class discipline, they all have a goal. They are not just “trying it out”, they are sincerely focused on something, and that drives better behaviour. The goal manufactures the necessity. Training for them is mostly not enjoyable or pleasurable, but they are willing to endure it because their goal is set and they have a burning desire to achieve it. This is why in Martial Arts “black belt” is such an important part of martial arts training for kids, because it takes a lot of time, and a lot of sacrifice. When earning their black belt is a major goal for them they will want to eat better, be respectful, turn off the tablet and go to bed on time, because those things are all aligned with that goal. When we have kids in our Kung Fu program acting undisciplined, we usually just ask them “is that black belt behaviour?”, and in most cases the behaviour is corrected immediately, not by us, but by the child themselves, because they know the behaviour is not conducive to earning a black belt.
The fourth step that’s needed is to let them fail. Especially let them fail at smaller goals so they are more likely to accomplish big ones. Out of love and out of the best of intentions we often don’t let kids fail. This might help us with short term delight but hurts us all long term. Short term failures are a necessary part of learning for kids, and if they’re not allowed to fail they won’t see the result of their lack of self-discipline. Having to deal with the consequences of their own behaviour will speak much louder than anything you could say critically. Imagine when your kid has a test he has to study for but instead he’s stuck on his tablet until bed time. Your first instinct will be to tell him to turn it off and study. When he ignores you you’ll warn him that if plays video games all night, refuses to study, doesn’t sleep enough, he’ll fail. At this point, out of sheer stubbornness he’ll probably want to keep playing just to spite you. Eventually you’ll threaten him and he’ll give in if the punishment is bad enough. He may get a decent grade, but he didn’t learn much from the experience, other than the fact that he gets nagged at when he plays video games. When he’s at university and doesn’t have you there to nag him you can probably guess what could possibly go wrong. Without independent study habits developed through his own discipline he has less of a chance of succeeding at a higher level of education (big fail). Alternately, if we provide a healthy warning, “you should study instead of playing that game if you want to get a decent grade”, and then leave it at that, it’s very likely the kid will probably stay up with the tablet until 2am, waking up groggy, and completely and utterly failing (small fail). After the embarrassment of a horrible grade the consequence (and parent with some guidance) will teach him the importance of setting aside time to study and how to choose between what you want most and what you want now. Please note this is just an example, I’m not saying let your kid roam free without limits. It’s also worth pointing out that, yes, there are times and examples when this won’t work. You may be thinking your kid will just say “I don’t care about the bad grade, I want to drop out of high school and play fortnight professionally” and therefore how can you just let him fail. In that case you’re right, you can’t just let them go ahead with a plan like that, but what’s missing here in this case is goal setting. If this is the case then go back to step 3 about goals. The whole scenario only works when our kids have goals – that’s the essential key, they have to want a desired outcome.
If you would like to develop discipline in your child please don’t forget to set goals. Sit with them and talk to them about goals, what would they like to be, what would they like to have, what would they like to do. Then you can discuss and offer insight as to what kind of behaviour is needed to get there.
I hope this helps give you some insight into how to develop discipline in your child. Although discipline is important in the overall development of character, it’s only one part. Other parts that are important are confidence, focus, respect, perseverance. If you’re in the Niagara area and would like to see how we put these values to practice in our martial art program than I would like to invite you, and your child, and frankly your whole family in for a free trial. It’d be a 2 week trial that would kick off with a private class so we can make a tailored plan on how to develop confidence, discipline, and focus for your family at home and in the classroom at school too. The trial is totally free, with no risk, and it’s guaranteed to show improvements in confidence and discipline within just 1 week. After the free 2 week trial if you want to walk out with a couple of free uniforms and a fun experience to tell the family about then that will be totally cool with us and we’ll be thankful you came in to try it out. Thanks for watching and hopefully we see you again soon.