Teaching Self Discipline

I love Oreo cookies. And ice cream. And rich milk chocolate- or extra dark… Ok, let’s face it. I have a gigantic sweet tooth. And if I don’t keep it under control, it will devour every fitness goal I have. But completely depriving myself of sweets is up there with my chances of climbing Mt. Everest. It ain’t gonna happen. So, I try to set goals that focus on Moderation and Motivation. It works for me, and it’s an incredibly effective parenting strategy, too.

What Doesn’t Work

When I try to limit my sweets intake, the Super Strict Approach almost always backfires. Here’s how. Let’s say I tell myself, “NO! You can’t have those Oreos. The sugar and fat will make you sluggish-remember you’re in training!” If I really want the cookies, a hard line approach only fuels my resolve to get them. And in my stubbornness, I’ll argue until my inner Cookie Monster is victoriously munching on chocolate wafers and smirking at my puny willpower.

A Better Approach

My sweet tooth isn’t going away any time soon, and fighting against it leaves me bitter and frustrated. So, I’ve learned to use its power to my motivational advantage. I tell myself, “YES! You CAN have 3 Oreos… as soon as you run 5 miles.” (Notice the Moderation of 3 cookies and the Motivation to run 5 miles? Specific rewards and objectives are critical in goal setting). With this approach, my determination shifts focus from arguing to earning the prize.

How this Plays Out with Kids

When we firmly tell our kids they CANNOT have something that they truly want, a switch in their brain turns ON causing them to focus with laser intensity on ways to bypass our NO. As parents, it’s easy to see this as strong-willed defiance. (“Why can’t they just OBEY?” is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly.) But I have to remember that obedience is something that is learned…along with self discipline. It’s not something we are born with, and it takes time to shape.

Quite frankly, I don’t want squash my kids’ spirit of determination. It will serve them well in year’s ahead. Instead, I want to teach them to use it respectfully. And I want them to obey authority because it’s the right thing to do, not simply because they fear the consequences or wrath of mom. Ultimately, I want my kids to learn to make responsible, self-disciplined decisions whether I’m there to guide them or not.

Choose Your Course

When kids want something that parents don’t want them to have, a fork in the road emerges. The path we take will directly impact the short and long term shaping of our kids. Here are the 3 most common routes parents take and probable outcomes:

  1. Head down the path of least resistance: give in and give them what they want. While this may be easiest, it teaches kids that Mom has an Achilles’ heel. And they will target her weak spot every time.
  2. Barricade the road with a huge wall to try to force a change of direction. While this will block the prohibited objective, determined kids will usually try to climb the wall, and others will flop down in front of it and pout (or tantrum) in defeat.
  3. Put up a solid Road Block while directing traffic to a more appropriate Detour. This route invites a child to focus on redirecting to a healthier, wiser outcome instead of fighting back. Sure, they will still be disappointed in the underlying NO, but when those emotions are met with empathy, their ability to cope will be strengthened.


Here’s an example using a Road Block with a Detour and a sprinkle of Moderation and Motivation, too. Setting: The time is 4:30 PM. Mom is in the kitchen preparing dinner for5:30PM when six year-old Conner comes running in with a puppy dog look on his face:

Conner:  MOM, I’m huuuuungry. Can I have cookies and milk…please?

Mom:  I bet you’re hungry! You’ve been playing outside all day in the sunshine. Dinner is in one hour. Cookies are for after dinner (Road Block), but I’m happy to serve a healthy snack to tide you over (Detour). How about some yogurt or carrots with Ranch dip?

Conner:  But I want cookies. NOW.

Mom (Clarifying the Detour):  You may have 2 cookies (Moderation) after you eat a good dinner (Motivation). If you choose to argue about it, the cookies will have to wait until tomorrow. Would you like a yogurt or carrots as a snack for now?

Conner:  Yogurt, please. Can we put the cookies on a plate and set them on the counter so you don’t forget after dinner?

Mom:  I do forget sometime, huh? Sure. That’ll be a good reminder for both of us.

What this Teaches:

The bottom line is this: Mom successfully sets unpopular but necessary boundaries by:

  • helping Conner stay focused on coping with the disappointment instead of fueling his desire to argue with her,
  • setting clear limits with Moderation and Motivation: 2 cookies, after dinner, and as long as there is no arguing, and
  • offering an appropriate alternative to curb Conner’s hunger before dinner.

IF Conner continues to argue for cookies, Mom can calmly but firmly remind him, “I know you are disappointed, but I was clear that there would be no cookies tonight if the arguing continued. I’m going to remove cookie privileges tonight, and you can try again tomorrow.” This will, no doubt, be met with greater disappointment. A helpful approach in shaping coping skills at this point is to continue to show empathy for the disappointment, while instilling hope and believing in the child’s ability to be successful next time.

For instance, Mom might say, “It’s tough to lose privileges. It’s hard for me to take them away, too. Tomorrow will be a fresh start. Would you like to aim to have your 2 cookies with lunch?”

If Conner is incredibly tired from his big day, he may not have what it takes to hold it together at this point. If he begins to melt down, redirecting him to a quiet activity in his room or a nice warm bath can help him reset before dinner.

Teaching our kids to obey and eventually master self discipline is one of the toughest tasks we face as parents. But when kids are given the tools to learn to cope with boundaries and disappointment, and shown how to make wise and healthy decisions, they can acquire skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.

I challenge you today to face limit setting with a fresh approach. Provide appropriate detours along with those road blocks and watch your kids respond more cooperatively. And the next time you break out a package of Oreo cookies, please be sure to eat one for me!

Question: What limits are most difficult for you to set with your kids? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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