Teaching Kids Self-Discipline  



           I was talking to our kindergarten teachers the other day about their concerns for the growing lack of self-discipline of their students.  Recent meetings with elementary teachers at which they expressed their anxiety about discipline in our schools prompted me to want to gain the insight of our kindergarten teachers.  The kindergarten teachers report numbers of insolent five year-olds who have not by now been able to adjust their conduct to the expectations of a public school.  They report instances of willfully defiant behavior of an extremity that requires the calling of the principal to remove children from the class.   I sat agog as teacher after teacher gave me instances of children throwing themselves on the floor in paroxysms of temper that cause upset and frustration to teachers and students alike, if not downright fear.  I sat in a state of disbelief until one teacher sensing my incredulity said, “Morty, you come from a secondary school background.  You don’t begin to understand how a teacher can be terrified by a five year-old.”  I had to admit that I didn’t.  Never in thirty-five years of teaching our district’s most difficult high school students had I felt terrified, not even close.  Yet, I didn’t doubt for a minute that the condition that they described exists and it is essentially unaddressed.  

            What does it say that there are five year old children who feel empowered to terrorize adults?  To me it says we are paying a steep price for the indulgent parenting we have inflicted on a generation of children who have been raised to believe that they are the center of the universe, children who just assume that their thoughts and feelings command the instantaneous attention of all who orbit around them.  We are suffering the reckoning for disestablishing our teachers as authority figures in the lives of children and rendering them essentially impotent to correct the atrocious, self-centered behavior that too many of them act out at home in our classrooms.  As we have become more sophisticated at understanding children’s behavior, we have come to believe that we have to accept whatever children do because to sanction their behavior in some firm way is to punish a child for some misfortune that has befallen him or his family or at the very least jeopardize the development of his self-esteem.  We no longer remember human beings build self-esteem through accomplishment and that the worst punishment we can inflict on a child is to render her incapable of controlling herself, condemning her to a life of following her impulses, a life of troubled relationships at home and work.  As the child psychiatrist Robert Shaw in an under-noticed book The Epidemic (Regan Books, 2003) says, “Far too many children today are sullen, unfriendly, distant, preoccupied and even unpleasant.  They whine, nag, throw tantrums and demand constant attention from their parents, who are spread too thin to spend enough time with them…”  All too often we reward these behaviors rather than correcting them.  

            Parents and schools have the responsibility to teach children to discipline themselves, a responsibility that a society relieves them of at its peril.  Parents and schools need to help children find their place in the world, to learn that while they are precious individuals worthy of great respect, so is everyone else so that the world will not come to a stop to reward them for doing what is expected of them.  Parents and schools need to be empowered to show children that out of control behavior makes us angry and that we will not tolerate it.  Yes, an adult can show anger to a child without being out of control himself.  Parents and schools need to be reminded that children are happiest when they know exactly what is expected of them and sure that the adults in their lives are prepared to help them control themselves.  If my years of teaching young people have taught me anything it is that they count on the adults in their lives to control them, even though they often seem to be saying otherwise.  Often a child’s outrageous behavior is a desperate appeal to adults to help him to get himself under control.  To fail to answer the call is to say to such a child that we are indifferent to his plight.  We need to remind ourselves that nurturing and sound discipline are not incompatible but complementary.

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