11 Apr

Cultivating Self-Discipline in Young People


Some people seem to be endowed with superhuman willpower.

Others seem to lack it to a great degree. I’m one of those last. But it doesn’t mean that I’m relegated to the back seat when it comes to cultivating self discipline. Self-discipline is not in your genes; it is a learned behavior. And if I can master it (to some degree), so can you.

Your teenager can master it as well.

But it’s hard. That’s because when kids hit adolescence, they no longer think of themselves as children. She will almost certainly begin actively and passively resisting parental authority. She will want to choose from a broader base of experiences. She no longer recognizes her parents’ power to dictate what she must and must not do (not that they ever had real power, anyway). She realizes that without her cooperation, her parents can’t make her do some things and stop doing others.

It’s a heady feeling.

Along with the freedom she feels, she also begins to understand that she can’t manage all that freedom on her own. Most kids will return to allowing their parents to help them manage their lives and keep them on track. That’s when they really need to develop self-discipline. Parents no longer strive for control of their child; instead, they work toward consent. Although she may protest, underneath it all she knows that self-discipline is necessary. Without it, life quickly flies out of control.

Helping your child means admitting your own struggle.

Here are six things that can help (they work for me!).

  1. Admit that you struggle. Many people simply refuse to admit that they have a problem, but like in most things, admitting the problem is the first step to overcoming it. Don’t harbor the thought, “I could stop if I wanted to,” just to avoid recognizing that there is a problem to fix.
  2. Make a plan. Help your young person develop a strategy for self discipline. No one just wakes up one day with it. Whether she needs to focus on developing good habits—like reading the Bible everyday—or getting rid of bad habits—like gossiping with the neighbors—she needs to plan some action steps to make the change.
  3. Get rid of temptations. The Bible says, “Walk away from evil and do good.” Don’t leave temptations where they are easily accessed. That’s just asking for failure. If she can’t resist cookies between meals, don’t buy cookies. It only takes one minute of weakness to give into temptation.
  4. Get used to discomfort. Practice makes perfect, so they say. No one likes being uncomfortable, but self discipline is necessary to overcome the negative emotions that flood in when we are. Practice letting uncomfortable situations make her stronger, whether it’s boredom, frustrations, sadness or loneliness. She can tolerate more than you realize.
  5. Keep the long-term rewards in mind. It may really be tempting to give in, just this once, and tomorrow get back on track, but that’s defeatist thinking. Keeping a vision of the end goal in mind can help her stay on track. Visualize what the final result will be, and focus on it when temptation raises its ugly head.
  6. Don’t let mistakes sideline her. Somedays are just easier than others. Stress can cause her to lose her focus for a time. Just don’t let it replace all the hard work she’s already done. Help her pick herself up, dust herself off, and get back on the horse. Remember the long term goal and refocus.

She can do this. You can do this. There is no one who cannot benefit from cultivating self discipline, and anyone can do it. Just remember: the greatest journey began with a single step.

02 Apr

Sibling Wars: How to Negotiate Peace

Sibling Wars

Declaration of War

If you have more than one child, you will inevitably have sibling wars. In fact, when you brought Number Two home from the hospital, you entered the battlefield, because your Number One will at some point feel like you prefer the baby over her. In fact, if you were happy with her, why did you go out and get a new, younger model? Even kids who absolutely love their new brother or sister will feel doubtful about their place in the family at some point.

Sometimes clashes occur because there are personality differences. One child likes quiet and the other wants to create havoc in the house. They want different things because they are different ages, or because they are the same age. And sometimes, just like their parents, kids are just having a bad day.

Whatever the reason, war is bound to erupt and disturb your domestic tranquility.

So what’s a parent to do?

I raised five “only children,” so I’ve developed some tips that seem to work for most people. Here are my top five.

Teach peaceful communication.

Kids aren’t Chatty Cathies, preprogrammed to say the right things. When conflicts arise, so do emotions. We often try to mediate by reminding them to “use their words.” But which words? In the heat of the moment, kids just can’t call up rational language, because they are not feeling rational. So it seems like we’re always telling them what the limits are, over and over. And guess what? It eventually works!

Teaching peaceful communication takes time and repetition. Develop a script and stick to it, even when it doesn’t seem to be working. Teaching kids to interact appropriately can be a simple matter, really. Try this three-step method.

Acknowledge feelings and wants. “You wanted your sister to stop yelling at you so you hit her.”

Set limit. “No hitting. Ever. Hitting hurts.”

Offer alternative. “Tell you sister, ‘Don’t yell at me.'”

Help children stand up for themselves.

If you constantly come to their aid when arguments arise—especially if you tend to take one child’s side more often than the other—you’re simply asking for the behavior to continue. Just because one is older doesn’t mean she should have to take abuse from her younger sibling. Instead of rescuing them, teach them how to stand up for themselves.

Memaw: Liam, you seem upset. What do you need to tell your sister?

Liam: She keeps yelling at me. I don’t like that!

Memaw: Remy, Liam doesn’t like it when you yell at him. Can you stop, please? Do I need to help you find a way to speak quietly?

Allowing each child to express his or her needs and backing them up when necessary speaks volumes to them about how much you believe they are competent and can handle the situation on their own.

There’s a better way to share.

When you force sharing, you are actually perpetuation unhealthy competition. Your child learns that if she makes enough noise, she’ll get what she wants even if someone else has it. They also learn that you are in charge of things and you arbitrarily choose who gets what when, usually based on who is making the most noise. Instead, try using this technique.

When a child picks up a toy, it’s his until he chooses to put it down, or until some specified time (like meal time). He may choose to give it to his sibling, but he doesn’t have to. If he puts it down, the other child must ask, “Are you through with your turn?” Letting the children self-regulate teaches valuable lessons. They learn that everybody eventually gets a turn, even if they have to wait. They know that crying is okay, but it won’t change the rules. When they decided to share, they feel good about themselves and each other.

There’s no comparison.

Comparing siblings to each other (or to other children) is a sure-fire way to start war. “Look at how well your brother is eating his dinner” is not going to endear him to his sister. Even making positive comparisons is not a good idea. “I like the way you always remember to say please and thank you. Now if only your brother would, too!” conveys the idea that she is the “good child” and he is the “bad child.” Since kids often think in black and white terms, she will think that she is loved more because she is good and therefore has a vested interest in making sure he remains the “bad child.” Praise each child individually without comparing them to anyone else. “You are so diligent about doing your homework. I appreciate that!”

Daily thanksgiving.

If you make kindness and generosity the norm in your home, kids will learn to speak and act that way toward each other. In Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Men, Jo Marsh kept a journal where she wrote about the children on a daily basis. Keeping a journal where you write down acts of kindness or generosity from your kids makes for happy reading at the end of the day or perhaps once a week after dinner. Hearing how they both gave and received  promotes happiness and feeling good about doing good.

Love each one best.

If your daughter knows she couldn’t be better loved, she won’t be worried that you love her brother more. If he knows that he will have special time with you, he won’t be jealous when you also have special time with her. Laugh with each child, deeply and fully from the belly. Guidance instead of force will nearly always garner cooperation. Be empathetic so they feel safe sharing their emotions. Make sure they realize that love is a bottomless well. You will never run out of love because you gave so much to a sibling that there’s none left for her.

These things are great ideas for ending the sibling wars and declaring peace. No one needs to live in hostile territory!

19 Nov

Are You Giving Your Child Permission to be Rude?

rude child


You walk into a room with your child by your side.

He’s normally rambunctious and noisy. But when an acquaintance stops to speak to your little precious, he won’t open his eyes or say a single word. “That’s okay,” says the grown up. “I imagine he’s a little shy of strangers.” Problem is, you know there’s not a single shy bone in his body! You’re embarrassed by the rude response (or lack thereof) from your child.  You know you’ll have to make teaching him good manners a priority. Especially when he says triumphantly “I didn’t even talk to that man!”

You know that he’s not just remembering “stranger danger.” He understands about talking to strangers when he’s with mom or dad. What he’s actually just done by being rude is show you how much he likes control. Maximum control.

Uh oh. He’s rude. Are you too late already?

You may have to take stock of what other signals are coming from him that he’s trying to rule the world. Is he allowed to refuse food he says he doesn’t like (even if he’s never even tasted it)? How about the way he addresses adults and talks to his teacher? Does he get to choose first all the time “because he’s the littlest”? Do you insist that big brother or sister include him in play with their friends, even though he’s four years younger?

Are you aware of the words you use about your child to others, especially in the presence of that child? “Oh, he’s pretty shy. He probably won’t talk to you.” “He doesn’t like squash. He probably won’t eat it.” Or how about (said with a little pride thrown in), “Yes, she’s always been active. She can’t sit still for a minute.” Your kiddo has his ears tuned to what you say, and he’s learning from you to make excuses for his behavior. Those simple statements turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. And each time it happens, he thinks that he really does rule the world.

So, let’s correct the rude greeting faux pas. Have a conversation with your young one about polite conversations. Make sure he understands that when adults speak to him, he is expected to look them in the eyes, smile, and use kind words to answer. No negotiations. No hiding behind mom’s back, no cop-outs of any kind. Your child may actually be an introvert, but that doesn’t mean he never talks outside his comfort zone.

Tools for tomorrow

Children who learn how to greet people politely and how to carry on a cordial conversation will have some of the tools necessary to land a job when they’re older. Teach them that others often make decisions based on first impressions. That’s why each time they meet someone, whether it is the first time or the thirty first time, repeatedly being polite and attentive leaves a positive impact. (Human nature being what it is, if there’s even one negative impression, that’s the one they’ll remember.)

I recently read an article about a family that had this very problem with their three year old. After carefully explaining their expectations, it was inevitable that he would test the limits. So they told him if he didn’t greet people as expected, when they got home, they would practice. They role-played a person speaking to their little boy. If he responded appropriately, great! Celebrate! If not, they kept on practicing until he got it right. By that time, he would do practically anything to be released from his “hello lessons.” And he knew that if he didn’t do what was expected in public, he’d go right back to practicing some more.

Rude is real

We once went out to dinner with a couple and their twin three-year-old girls. While we sat and ate our dinner, the children climbed over the chairs and under the table. Then they took a little trip around the restaurant to talk to all the other diners. They even helped themselves to the food on other people’s plates! Their parents thought their precious little ones were so cute that no one would mind being interrupted or having food stolen out from under their noses. When it became clear that the parents were not going to do anything to control their daughters, I finally got up, put the girls back in their chairs and warned them “Don’t move!” And you know what? They didn’t.

I’ve always believed I have two sets of children: the ones who live in my home and the ones who visit other people. Because invariably people they’ve visited with tell us, “Your children are so polite!” It’s a great feeling to know that those early lessons actually took hold.

Do you have polite, attentive children? If so, tell us how you got there. If not, will you try this solution? Why or why not?


02 May

Helping Children Overcome Anger

Helping Children Overcome Anger

Ever notice that anger is contagious?

Just let your two year old throw a temper tantrum in a public place, or listen to your elementary kid tell you she hates you, or witness a melt-down with a teenager, and you’ll find it’s true. You get angry too. Here’s how to help kids deal with anger.

Everyone gets mad.

It’s not the sole province of either adults or children. And anger is not always wrong or bad. There are very legitimate reasons for anger.

In infancy, babies cannot communicate their needs. So they cry. And when the need is adequately met, they quit crying. But when the need is not met—possibly because the mother can’t figure out what’s wrong—the crying gets louder until suddenly the infant has balled up fists, a red face, and is breathing so hard she sometimes actually loses her breath. That’s developmental anger. Of course, all you can do is try to figure out what’s wrong. Wet diaper? Hungry? Hot? Cold? Lonely? Thirsty?

In toddlerhood, kids understand many more words than they can use. They still cannot adequately express themselves and this leads to frustration and then to anger. The child not only has trouble expressing herself to adults, but to other kids as well. But other kids are more her own size, so expressing anger may result in injury to another child.

Teaching about alternatives.

This is the time we start to teach appropriate ways to handle anger. The one constant most people can agree on is that hurting other people or their possessions is not to be tolerated. When I was teaching a nursery school class of two and three year olds, one little girl came to class almost every day angry. She would scream and cry and flail her arms and legs, and woe to anyone in her path. So we set up an area padded with pillows and stuffed toys, and giving her a hug, we laid her down on the pillows. Then we walked away and ignored her. When her anger was spent, she smilingly came and joined the rest of the class—every time. She had learned an appropriate way to handle her anger. At this age, talking about future events is not very productive, because children of two or three have no clear concept of time. (That’s why it doesn’t help to say, “Mommy will be back after work.” The child lives in the now, not the later.)

Somewhat older kids.

Elementary aged kids still get mad at other kids for many of the same reasons that toddlers do. Another child took his baseball mitt or cut in line or said something mean. And often the response to that anger may look like a toddler’s reaction. But at this age, kids can start to learn about anger when they are not angry. When you and the child are both calm, that’s the time to talk about what’s okay and what isn’t. Is it okay to go outside and scream? Is it okay to punch a pillow? How about a wall or another person? Talk about how the child may act when he gets angry next time. Set ground rules and stick to them. Consistency is the single most important thing (next to love) that a parent can do to make sure a child grows up into a responsible, caring, compassionate adult.

What are you modeling?

Of course, it works in reverse too. If you consistently show your irritation, yelling when something doesn’t go your way, that’s what your child will learn. As your child approaches adolescence, it is very important to be sure you model proper response to situations where anger could arise. This time is so important because it is the time that your child is testing you as she tries to discover who she is. Should I count to ten when I’m angry? Mom doesn’t. She just yells. She tells me to count, but she doesn’t and that makes me mad! Be sure you are setting a good precedent for your teen to follow.

Unresolved anger is dangerous!

It’s important at any age to try and discover the source of your ire so that it can be dealt with in a healthy way. Unexpressed exasperation will show up later, and it may not be expressed as anger. For example, many adults who have never dealt with the source of their anger suffer from ulcers or even heart disease. There is a major difference between expressing anger inappropriately and suppressing it. Deal with anger when it arises. Don’t put it off, or you may hide it from yourself and have much more difficult problems later.