Healthy self-discipline is a set of capacities that are grown over time. Self-discipline unfolds through three general stages. As a parent, it is important for you to know these levels of self-discipline so you can meet your child where he is at developmentally and not unnecessarily strain your relationship.
The Impulsive Self
Babies are all instinct and impulse. You as a parent are there to support their instincts when they are life-affirming and nourishing, and to intervene when they are not. For instance, you help them to feed when they are hungry and help them get to sleep when needing rest. But you intervene and create boundaries when, for example, your nine-month-old starts to put a nickel in her mouth, or your toddler starts to run out into traffic. Nature has put young, impulsive creatures in the care of wiser adults for protection, care, and guidance.
Our instinctual brain is an important part of our wholeness, but its impulsiveness can get our children into trouble. As parents, we want to preserve the healthy instincts, but rein in our children’s dangerous behaviors until they learn to tell the difference and can modulate their impulses themselves. The same is true for transgressions with other people: when our children are being disrespectful, we gently help them to behave in more appropriate ways. Close external parental guidance is necessary for young, impulsive children through at least the first seven years of life.
The 3 Levels of Self-Discipline
The judge is a layer of the developing psyche that helps us behave independent of our parents and authority figures. It is largely composed of the ideas, beliefs, and judgments handed down by adults about what is good and bad, right and wrong. We study and memorize our parents’ values and rules because we need to be on their good side to get our basic needs met. But the judge also gathers “rules to live by” simply by the child exploring his world and learning what works and what does not, what is dangerous and what is safe. The judge can be thought of as a rulebook in the mind, and its ultimate goal is to keep us safe.
It is like having a little parental voice inside your head that reminds you of the right thing to do when your impulsive self would have you grab that third cookie. This rulebook is a natural and normal development for human beings; it helps our children navigate the world on their own—to not grab that cookie without us having to remind them. It supports children by helping them to act in harmony with the cultural expectations of the people with whom they interact. When children succeed in doing the right thing, they feel proud and competent, and receive positive feedback from the world. So the judge is a healthy and necessary first step in that direction, but it is not the end game that nature intended.
There are two aspects of the judge that make it a less than wise and compassionate guide to respectful and responsible behavior. The first is that this internal rulebook does not carry true wisdom, but is rather a reflection of what has worked in the past. Applying old strategies that worked at home with mom and dad may not be what the current life situation calls for. In this way, the judge is more historical and reactive than present-focused and responsive. The second aspect of the judge that can be problematic is its tendency to treat us with harshness and intimidation rather than kindness and encouragement. Although it is trying to protect us and keep us safe, the way it does so can create internal feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. The judge often plays the role of the righteous ruler in our head, reprimanding us when we go off course.
The judge is not all bad; it does help us evaluate situations based on past knowledge. And yet, it is most helpful when used like training wheels to guide our child roughly between the ages of seven and 14; that is, until she begins to develop her own authentic value system and emotional intelligence. Once she develops her own internal compass, she can use her naturally wise and loving heart—her authentic self—to guide her toward respectful and responsible behavior based on the truth of this moment.
The Authentic Self
Beginning in mid-adolescence, we can grow beyond both our impulsive self and our judge. Not all do so, but in our teens, we can begin to mature into our authentic self. At this stage of self-discipline, we become acutely interested in what we feel, what we see, and what we believe about the world. We begin to close ourselves off somewhat to the influence of our parents and the rules and roles of society. It is a time of discovery, when we begin to find our own North Star and internal compass to guide us toward what we value and aspire toward.
As more time passes and we enter our twenties, we can become even more self-aware. We begin to track when impulses and judgments are arising in our minds and bodies and are trying to gain control over our behavior. We become more capable of not acting from our histories. We begin to discriminate our real-time insights, values, and vision for the future. From the authentic self, we can override our unconscious “go-system” and instead consciously choose the best course of action from our more informed, better regulated “know system.” This capacity—what we call mindfulness—is the heart of Mindful Discipline and the key to conscious parenting.
This is why the development of healthy self-discipline is so important. Without it, how are our children going to live authentic, meaningful lives? How are they going to be able to engage in the give and take of intimate and social relationships? And how are they going to become wonderful parents like you and me?
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