Fostering Self-Discipline

by Julie Schneider

Before I started writing about "Discipline" I thought I should look it up in the dictionary...just to be sure I knew what I was supposed to be thinking about. What I found made me laugh and cry.


  1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

At first I laughed because "obey" has not ever been an aspect of my parenting experience. Even when my son was a toddler I explained to friends, family, and doctors that it seemed imperative to have my son's "buy in" if something was going to run smoothly. If he hadn't decided for himself that something was worth doing then my husband and I would have to fight tooth and nail to get what we wanted.

Then I cried because "punishment" is not something I aspire to use in my parenting. Instead of authoritarian parenting, which has a couple main features: value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself; and the primary job of parents is to bend the will of the child to that of authority, I'm inclined toward authoritative parenting - issue-oriented and pragmatic, rather than motivated by an external, absolute standard and I adjust my expectations to the needs of my children. Authoritative parenting, I think, is a way to foster what I want to see in my children: self-discipline.

But what does that look like in our family? Below are four things that I use to guide me as I foster self-discipline.


Take a moment to decide on what you want 'discipline' to look like in your family and why.

I want discipline to support self-directed learning. I want our 'discipline' practices to provide a safe space for my children to take developmentally-appropriate risks so they learn how to make good decisions. It is why Alfie Kohn's statement resonates so well with me,"The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making good decisions, not by following directions."

However, it doesn't mean leaving them unattended and to fend for themselves. My role is to set boundaries, to model positive self-talk, and to have big juicy conversations about our experiences after-the-fact and answering the question: "so what did we learn?"


Defining Boundaries

Someone once described boundary-setting as the letter 'V.' The two sides of the V represent boundaries, or limits, and the empty space inside the V is the space (physically or metaphorically) where a child has absolute freedom.

When children are very immature, their boundaries are narrow, at the bottom of the V. As they mature, the boundaries widen and the child has more space to explore independently.

Removing Obstacles

But setting boundaries is only half of this aspect of fostering self-discipline. Removing obstacles is also a very important parenting tool.

I enjoyed the following explanation of removing obstacles. I heard it as a small but extremely compelling snippet of a Freakanomics podcast:

Kahneman: There are driving forces that drive you in a particular direction. There are restraining forces. Which are preventing you from going there. The notion that Lewin offers is that behavior is an equilibrium between the driving and the restraining forces.


Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behavior, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces. That turns out to be profoundly non-intuitive.

In most cases, Kahneman explained, we try to change people’s behavior with a mish-mash of arguments, incentives, and threats.

Kahneman: Diminishing the restraining forces is a completely different kind of activity, because instead of asking, “How can I get him or her to do it?” it starts with a question of, “Why isn’t she doing it already?” Very different question. “Why not?” Then you go one by one systematically, and you ask, “What can I do to make it easier for that person to move?”

~ From Freakanomics Podcast, "How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution" 10/25/2017

It brings to mind running water. If I want water to flow a different direction then I can 1) try to block one path and 2) dig a path that is easy for it to follow.

The same seems to be true of my children. If I want them to learn more maths concepts then I can provide them with a compelling invitation to learn it (a good book, video, or activity); I need to make it easy. The less interest they have, the easier it needs to be for them to say "Ok, Mama. I guess I'll give it a try."

And before you say to me, "but they need to learn to do hard things that they don't want to do," I will just say this about my 2e child: a lot of things are hard for him. It is my job to decide what experiences are imperative to a healthy upbringing and then figure out how to be his advocate and guide. Moreover, this is what I say to my kids:

If someone isn't their best self, then they need help.

I have seen my children be selfless, helpful, and tackle difficult things (academically and otherwise). They do so when their buckets are full.


When you were a new parent did you ever get the advice to provide a predictable routine for your young child but also be flexible enough to go with the flow on an off-day? That advice persists past early parenthood. Now that my children are older I maintain that outlook.

Specifically, our routine has food as our anchors in the day. We come together five times per day. Breakfast is our family meal when we are all present. After my husband leaves for work the three of us are on our own for Morning Snack, Lunch, Afternoon Snack, and Dinner.

Sitting together is a good time for us to decide what we are going to do for the day, read aloud, and enjoy each other's company.

7AM: Breakfast - Planning the Day

At breakfast the kids decide how they will spend their time, choosing from a wide range of activities. I have culled a pile of icons/pictures from which they can choose to create their own visual schedule.

9:15AM: Morning Snack - Read Aloud

Light fare and a read aloud. This begins with my choice, typically a nonfiction picture book or something I consider a compelling Invitation to Learn.

11AM: Lunch - Reconnecting with the Plan, Making Modifications

Talking about all the fun things left to do in the day. Sometimes reading to them a book of their choice.

2:30PM: Afternoon Snack - On the Town

We often find ourselves at playgrounds at least once per day. If we are at a playground in the afternoon then the snack is a granola bar and cheese stick picnic. If we are at home then afternoon snack looks a lot like morning snack, and vice verse.

5PM: Dinner - Rehashing the Day

Sometimes we have picnic dinners, too. If we are at home then it is a good time to re-hash the day. We talk about all sorts of things but here is a list of "50 Questions To Ask Your Kids Instead Of Asking 'How Was Your Day.'"

I find it amazing that our mealtimes are fairly regular. And if I am prepared to facilitate meals on time, our days run much smoother than if I don't plan around them. If we are all well-fed then we are all much better-able to be our best selves through the entire course of the day.

So our routine around the timing of meals is set but we have flexibility about where we eat. The rest of our activities fall into the spaces in between.

Child-created Visual Schedule: Art, Playground, Cooking, Minecraft, Garden, Board Game


BUT. Sometimes we aren't our best selves. In desperate moments of motherhood I've longed, "I just want them to do what I say." Those are the times when I am tired, I feel like time is flying, and I need a rest. What I have learned is that there is one final pillar of fostering self-discipline: the Yes Bank.

The Yes Bank was explained to me by a friend who heard this story about raising a foster child:

The young girl arrived having had very little parental guidance. She had no boundaries and moved through the world without regard to a parent or caring adult to guide her. So the foster parent insisted that the child ask permission for everything. She had to ask permission to eat, to use the bathroom, to do anything. The crucial part of this new habit was that the answer was always, "yes."

The foster parent was purposefully building a Yes Bank with the child. With a full Yes Bank, the parent's "no" would be easier for the child to accept without defiance. Eventually with her foster parent, the child had heard enough (and felt enough) yeses that the nos were pretty palatable.

By having Made a Choice for what I want/need from 'discipline' in my family, Setting Boundaries & Removing Obstacles, and Developing a Routine, I am able to find a lot of flexibility and say "yes" to a LOT of requests. By saying "yes" a lot, my "no" seems to be received with minimal protest (usually ;) ).

So there you have it - my complicated and multi-faceted approach to discipline. But you know what? In a gifted household, 2e household, human household, complicated and multi-faceted might be just right.

This was written as part of the GHF Bloghop. For more on Discipline for here...

When she writes, Julie draws from both her formal education (MSE Electrical Engineering, MA Curriculum and Instruction - Science) and her informal education in Early Childhood Education and Special Needs Parenting that arose when she became a mother and shortly thereafter a blogger. Julie’s blog, Preschool Engineering, is where she advocates for children (and adults) as playful, independent Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math learners. Her experience and interests are a natural fit for her work Free-Learning in Colorado. Julie lives in Superior, CO with her husband of 16 years and their two children. In her spare time she reads, hikes, and practices kundalini yoga.