Children need a stable, predictable world in order to get their needs met. Unfortunately, children are not always able to differentiate between what they need and what they want.

When an infant cries to say it’s hungry, wet or tired that behavior is acceptable to get its needs met but not acceptable for a 10 year old.

It is the responsibility of parents to assist children in getting their needs met while developing a responsible way of getting some of their wants met as well. Self discipline is necessary for those occasions that parents have to say “No” to the wants of a child.

4 simple steps to teaching children self discipline

What is self discipline?

Parents are the early teachers of social behavior. They can be positive and assist children as young as 2-3 years old start to develop self discipline. Unlike punishment, discipline is self induced and rational. Punishment tends to be arbitrary and based on the emotions of the parent at the time of the behavior.   Discipline and punishment are both based on rules established by the parents. “Mary, if you want to play outside with your friend you will need to put away your game first.”


With self discipline you present the consequence with the rule. “If you do not put away your game I will have to ask your friend to go home.” Now is also the time to ask your child “Which do you want to do?”

Seems like a strange question and to parents the answer is obvious and so is it to the child. Most of the time children chose to follow the rule and will be rewarded with a reward or a positive outcome. In this case to continue to keep playing.

If they do not follow the rule, a consequence is given. When the consequence is given the child is likely to be angry, hurt, or scared. They may plead not to get the consequence because in their mind this is the worst thing in the whole world and they will never get another chance.

Parents can honestly say to their child, “I am disappointed in your decision too,” “Don’t worry you will have another opportunity after supper or tomorrow.”

Children who have developed self discipline guide themselves through life making appropriate decision because they were encouraged to do so.

How Punishment is Different

Alternatively, with punishment parents wait until the violation occurs and expected the child to “have known better.” Children often contest this assumption and a battle ensues.

Parents also apply punishment based on their feelings. If the parent is in a good mood, they tend to let things slide until they are out of control and become frustrated. Once that occurs an arbitrary punishment is given, “Mary, you will never have a friend over again.”

Never is a pretty long time and your child will most likely know you will not carry out the punishment.

Yes, sometimes you may get compliance with these heavy handed tactics but your child will feel hurt and blame you for your choice of punishment. They will not accept responsibility for their decision to break the rule and then say you are unfair.

The truth is, you were unfair. The child did not have the opportunity to develop self discipline by making good or bad decision. Punishment was given to them by the parent. In the emotional context, parents use what they believe is the most valuable reward to hurt there child into compliance.

4 Simple Steps to Teach Self Discipline

Children who were punished believe that some one outside of themselves is responsible to control them. So when there is no one watching, the child believes it is OK to violate the rule. Not getting caught is now the new goal, not developing self discipline.

Parents would rather have compliance than give a consequence. Parents feel sad or guilty when they apply consequences to a child, even when self discipline is appropriately used. Knowing you were fair, emotionally neutral and that your child chose this outcome will ease the guilt of the parent applying consequences.

There is a simple four-step process that parents can follow that demonstrates fairness, gives an opportunity to change an outcome and assist the child in developing self discipline.

When teaching self discipline follow this format:

Establish a RULE: “When I am on the telephone I do not want to be disturbed” and a
Establish a Consequence: “If I am interrupted I will ask you to go to your room until I am done.”

Try these 4 steps to assist your child in making a good decision. Fret not if they make a bad one. They will learn the process and demonstrate to you they have self discipline.

Step 1: Give a cue.

A cue is  non-verbal behavior that implies there is something wrong and to stop the behavior. That may be the burning eye look, staring, clearing your throat, crossing you arms or like a teacher does, tap your pencil until the children notice the rule violation.

Parents are giving the non-verbal behavior signal that you are not happy and there is something wrong. This is the least intrusive way to assist your child to make the right decision and change their behavior. Most of the time you get compliance of the rule without applying the consequence.

Step 2: Next provide a prompt.

A prompt is an indirect way to tell someone to stop doing something or change their behavior.

Examples would be saying your child’s name “Danny, Danny” or asking a rhetorical question like  “Are you sure you want to continue doing that?” or “Are we going to have to go through this like we did this morning?” Obviously the answer is “No.”  Once again you got compliance of the rule with out providing a consequence.

Step 3: Provide a Redirect.

A Redirect is the final chance to stop or change the behavior without getting a consequence. Some parents call it the “Or else.” It is a direct threat of action to be taken if the behavior does not stop immediately. An example would be “If I have to tell you one more time I’m going to…”

Parents need to watch the child to see if the behavior stops. Parents will know right away if the child understands or will be compliant. It is recommended not to get distracted by other behaviors like grumbling, making faces, kicking the ground, etc., right now. Focus on did the child stop and follow the rule.

Parents can work on attitude or additional behaviors next time, one battle at a time.

Step 4: Apply the Consequence.

“Repeat as necessary as determined by the child.”

The consequence is a temporary situation. There will be many more opportunities to try again. Children should be encouraged to make another attempt to follow the rule and be successful. Success will breed more compliance of rules.

Contributing factors to making this work


Must be fair, age appropriate, realistic and parallel societal rules. You must be on time for school, curfew or supper. If you have a job you are expected to be there on time or there will be a consequence. Similarly that applies to home too.


Consequences must relate to the rule. If your teen is late for curfew they do not lose their cell phone, car privileges, etc. A related consequence would be loss of privilege to stay out that late for a specific period of time. Parents often go for the jugular taking away a prized item because it will hurt the child more. A Latin phrase of the past says “Repetition is the mother of all learning.” Be patient, no one gets it right the first time all the time.


It is necessary at first to be exceptionally consistent. Reward compliance with “Thank you,” “That was a good decision” and apply consequences as necessary. Irregular reinforcement means the child doesn’t know the rules and cannot be successful. An example would be if a parent is too busy, inattentive, caught up in an activity or overwhelmed they wait until they become frustrated and act off that which again is punishment.

Your Emotions

If you impulsively act out of loss of tolerance or current stresses in your life you will have poor results of what you are trying to teach your child. The severity of the punishment increases with heightened emotions. Parents often then conceded or give into the child. The message to the child is the parent is out of control and guilty. So they will take advantage of this chink in the armor next time. In this circumstance the child is unable to see how the consequence relates to making a good decision or see fairness in the application of the rule.

Immediate Correction

The younger the child the more immediate the consequence should be applied. A teenager knows that this weekend they will be grounded. A 5 year old will most likely forget about future consequences and connecting the deed with the consequence is lost. For a 5 year old consequences should be almost immediate. Ideally, behavior is rewarded or punished very soon after the behavior occurs to draw a relationship to the behavior, good or bad.

The Use of Encouragement

Children work for attention and look forward to recognition for positive behavior. Parents often encourage toddlers to dress themselves even despite having their shoes on the wrong feet. This assists the toddler in developing positive behavior. The same is true of self discipline. Encouragement builds self esteem, helps a person to cope, is a reward, and ideally, should occur more than punishment.