“Encourage the young men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:5-7).
An excellent recent article on the website AllProDad.com caught my attention. It was called “5 Ways to Teach Children Self-Discipline” (no author given), and I’d like to comment on a couple of those points from a biblical perspective. If you would also like to read the original article, it can be found here.
The article’s first point was Structured Routine. Most children need structure in their lives and all can profit from it. When we look at the biblical record, we see that God made abundant use of structure in setting up the world for us – His children. We tend to take it for granted, but time was structured not only in terms of day and night, but the weekly and seasonal cycles throughout which the festivals and rituals were organized (Genesis 1:14). God told ancient Israel when to do what it should do, and in dealing with our own human children we need to organize their lives around structured time also. The author of the AllProDad article gives the example that by setting a designated time for homework to be completed each day, the routine will become a natural habit. But this is not just to ensure that the task is completed – by gradually letting a child take responsibility for “reminding” him- or herself of the time and starting the task at the proper point, we allow – and encourage – the child to develop self-discipline.
A related point is the need to Enforce Consequences. God certainly does that in relation to His laws because it is not in human nature to want to follow instruction – especially if it conflicts with what we would rather do! It’s the rare child who will do things that are not desirable without some kind of consequence being part of the equation. If chores, homework or other responsibilities are not completed, there has to be some kind of consequence both for the preservation of parental authority and again, for the child to develop self-control. Rather than “punishments,” it is often effective to curtail rewards where possible. For example, if children don’t get ready for bed when asked, then no bedtime stories. If the child does not clean up his/her room by one hour before bedtime, bedtime comes then. The main thing is that these “game rules” be clearly explained in advance and never suddenly handed out in frustration.
Another point related to the last is Praise and Reward. Character – including self-control – is rarely developed in the absence of positive feedback. Praise and reward are just as necessary as the realization of consequences. Remember how, when God led the ancient Israelites into the Promised Land, He carefully mapped out before them the blessings as well as the curses that would be the result of their behavior (Deuteronomy 28:1-68). While physical rewards are often useful in helping children learn positive behavior – especially at young ages – children love to receive praise, as the alprodad.com article stresses. I would go even further and stress the principle outlined in another excellent recent article, this one in the New York Times, which showed the importance of praising a child’s character, not their actions. That is a vital distinction (read the article "Raising a Moral Child" here). A related principle is also important: to make our children feel guilt, not shame, for infractions. These things all tie into the development of self-control in children (and actually in adults, too!). They may seem like small points, but together they can make a big difference. A final point, not mentioned in the articles cited above, is that we should not make the process of learning self-control harder than it already is for our children. Every parent knows how exasperating children can be at times, but child-rearing is an art that none of us has mastered perfectly, and we can sometimes frustrate and even anger our children when we do not deal with them as wisely as we should. The apostle Paul spoke to this fact: "Fathers [and of course, mothers], do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Children and especially teenagers have a harder time than we do in controlling their emotions. If we are to help them build self-control, it is imperative that we do not produce unwanted and unhelpful emotions by the ways we deal with them. No child likes to be corrected or restricted in her or his behavior, but it is our responsibility as parents to correct or guide our children with love, gently and with kindness, and to work with them to help minimize their emotional reactions to parental controls.
The AllProDad article we talked about above begins with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “With self-discipline most anything is possible.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it’s certainly true that without self-control very little is possible. No wonder the apostle Paul urges us, “Encourage the young … to be self-controlled.”