Teaching Self-Discipline to Your Preteen
They're loud, excitable, savvy and totally obsessed with their friends. They can also be thoughtful, quiet and affectionate with their family. The one constant with preteens is how changeable they are. But as they head into their teens, parents begin to worry about how they will face the challenges and temptations of the future. It all comes down to one word: self-discipline. Do they have the self-discipline to make it in today's demanding world?
One definition of self-discipline, as it pertains to preteens, is the ability to make yourself do that which you don't want to do and the capability to stop yourself from doing what you shouldn't be doing.
Trina Lambert, mother of two from Englewood, Colo., has an 11-year-old daughter whose interests and passions range from martial arts to music, which Lambert feels would be great if her daughter had any propensity to follow through.
"It's rather stressful watching her not practicing for activities like taekwondo and violin lessons and then wondering if she's going to have to pay the piper," Lambert says. "If she approached these attempts with more self-discipline, I would find more enjoyment in her doing them."
Lambert's daughter is very self-disciplined in some things. She works extremely hard at her schoolwork, for instance, but doesn't seem to take that focus to the rest of her life.
"I am upset at how she seems to leave me in charge of keeping track of time," Lambert says. "Although we have clocks in the house, she doesn't put any responsibility in getting herself out the door to lessons, classes or practices. I've bought her a watch, but she lost it. She wants to do everything, but not be responsible for getting there on time or for being prepared by keeping the equipment bags ready or by getting dressed when she should."
Lambert isn't sure how to help her daughter improve in this area. "I model to her how important it is to be on time," Lambert says. "I use timers to help myself, and I keep a close eye on the clock. I think she is so used to this being my job that she is not maturing in this area."
Lambert fears her final lesson will be letting her daughter fail.
So how are we supposed to teach our children self-discipline?
Like adults, some children just naturally seem more self-disciplined than others. Susan Wickert's daughter just sailed through her preteen years, and Wickert isn't sure she did anything to facilitate her daughter's self-discipline. "Rachel has always been self-disciplined," Wickert says. "People have even made comments about it, and I tell them I have no idea where she got it."
Whether your preteen falls on the higher or lower end of the self-discipline spectrum, it's important for all parents to understand how to teach their children responsibility and self determination. It's not only crucial to their survival of the teen years, but to their success as an adult.
Patty Hansen, author of Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul (Health Communications, 1998) and Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul (Hci, 2000), believes that preteens are ready to learn what it means to be self-disciplined, because developmentally, they are ready to become a little more autonomous when it comes to making decisions.
"In their younger years, they looked to their parents to lead the way, and they were more readily influenced by an authority figure," Hansen says. "During the preteen years they become more aware of the 'outside' world and begin to incorporate what they learn 'out there' into the decision-making equation."
To Hansen, the mother of two children, self-discipline for preteens means the ability to choose right from wrong based upon past parental guidelines, listening to their "inner" self, their innate knowledge of correct action and the strength to stand up for their own beliefs and to not succumb to peer pressure.
"A preteen is very aware of the consequences of making a wrong decision," Hansen says. "They become aware that their friends may have been raised differently than they were, and they begin to question the values and morals of their own family, as well as those of society in general. Although, at times, they may yearn for the days when their parents made all of their decisions for them, they are well aware that they are on the verge of stepping out into the world ... more or less on their own."
So exactly how does a parent go about instilling self-discipline in her child? According to Hansen, the most important advantages a parent has is that the preteen very much wants and needs parental involvement. She believes that talking to your preteen is critical.
"The easiest way to bring up self-discipline, or 'how to act in any situation and keep your dignity,' is to create time to just talk with your child," Hansen says. It does not necessarily have to be about anything specific, but if you create the time to give to them, your kids will talk.
According to Hansen, as children become autonomous, they pull away from parental influence and become more introspective, which many parents interpret as becoming withdrawn. At this age, it is more important than ever to get children to open up and be willing to share what is going on inside of them.
"The absolute best way to do this is to create a neutral environment where you can discuss preteen issues in general," Hansen says. "It gives your child a chance to share what is going on, but they themselves are not on the hot seat."
Hansen suggests that you spend time with your child to facilitate discussions. Watch a TV show together, spend a special day at the movies, go online together or read a story relevant to the preteen years. The important thing is to use whatever media you choose not only as a vehicle for spending time together, but to create an atmosphere conducive to communication. Use it as a launch pad for discussion. Try to ask questions that can't be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No." Ask for elaboration and examples.
"Once you get the lines of communication open, you will be amazed at what kids will be willing to share with you," Hansen says. "In so many of the thousands of letters that we get from preteens, one thing is repeated over and over: 'I wish my parents had more time to spend with me,' and 'My parents work too much and they are never home.'"
Teaching your child self-discipline takes a combination of things, none of them easy. Modeling responsible behavior, spending time with your child, even if they act like they don't need it, and setting reasonable limits on their behavior is all a part of the self-discipline equation.
"It becomes your responsibility to learn how to walk that fine line between seeing your child as the adult that he will soon become and continuing to love him as the child that he still is, how to give him privacy and yet know what he is doing at all times, to be respectful of his individuality and yet continue to help him form his wings," Hansen says. "It is a huge challenge, but these preteen kids are awesome – and well worth it."