How Self-Discipline Develops

Posted by on May 6, 2014 in Practical Parenting | 2 comments

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.


dad_intenseEmbodying self-discipline is more effective than demanding it


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.


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The 3 Levels of Self-Discipline


The Judge

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.


brain1A mindful brain orchestrates a self-disciplined life


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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  1. Such a helpful way of looking at it!

    Our family has been through trauma. Her Dad, my husband, nearly died when our daughter was 4 years old and I have since suffered from chronic depression and at times have been emotionally unavailable. As the parent of a 20 year old who is still studying at a Grade 10 level and is extremely defiant. As parents we see the need to work through our own family of origin issues before we can be truly present with our kid.

    We however lost our confidence as parents and our daughter saw it. The climb back up from dis-function is steep and hard. It is families like us, families that are stuck, that also need of your guidance.

    I believe we are all somewhat defended against vulnerability and, as you indicate none of us have matured fully beyond being teenagers. Our normal adolescence did not end at 14.

    My experience is that although we are not able to be mindful in every moment neither do we always parent from our impulsive self and our judge.

    Can you guide us on how to approach a ‘redo’ when we realize they we have slipped up.

    • Hi Ann,
      The great news is that there is no perfect parenting, and you are exactly who and what your daughter needs. The ways you support her and help her feel loved are just as important as the ways that she experiences some “lack.” We learn a whole lot form the mis-attunements and challenges of life.
      And here is where the “re-do” is so important. We all lose our mindfulness and our cool, and that is especially the case with parents – kids are extremely challenging! But if after yelling or acting out in some way, we can take a little time to pause and actually feel our regret or our remorse, we are then back in the heart where everything can be worked out again. Yes, it is important to understand our reactive patterns that we learned in order to survive growing up. and to our best to interrupt the transmission. But humility, compassion, and forgiveness (for self and for other) are the keys for trying the manure into fertilizer for growth. contact me if you would like to talk in more depth about this. take care

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