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The gift of discipline 

“Children need models more than they need critics.”

Joseph Joubert, Pensees, 1842


Bruno Bettelheim begins his chapter “About Discipline” from his book A Good Enough Parent with this quote from Joubert. Bettelheim notes that when parents think about “discipline,” they often equate it with punishment—either physical punishment or coercion that demands obedience. Bettelheim suggests that the original definition of this word has been lost: “discipline” is “instruction imparted to disciples” from the Latin root, discipulus or learner.  Children are originally disciples of their parents and learn by modeling their behavior on their parents’ behavior. What needs to be modeled, according to Bettelheim, are self-control and self-respect.

Most disciples want to learn from a master in whose image they can form themselves. For most children, parents are these first masters. “The younger the child, the more he admires his parents,” Bettelheim writes. “Thus, fortunately, in most families there is a solid basis for the child’s wish to be his parents’ disciple, to love and admire them, and to emulate them if not in all, then in some very important respect.” The initial basis for instruction is love and admiration not force and coercion.


“Most disciples want to learn from a master in whose image they can form themselves. For most children, parents are these first masters.”


Self-discipline and self-control are what many parents want their children to learn. “It is up to parents to build on the child’s need for attachment to promote self-control around particular issues and, even more important, a lasting inner commitment to be, or at least to become, a disciplined person.” For children to learn self-control, parents must model self-control. If parents want children to control anger by counting to 10, then parents should also be able to control their own anger in a similar manner. Children respond to what parents do more than what they say: “It is by no means easy to achieve self-discipline; many parents are not that disciplined themselves and thus do not provide a clear image in this respect for their child to emulate.”

Self-control does not develop quickly or easily.  Parents should not be surprised or upset that it takes time to learn self-control. Bettelheim suggests that parents can remember their own limitations. “We too should remember how impossible we often were as children and how we resented it if our parents were not patient and understanding. If we could do that, we would then have much greater patience with and understanding of our children’s inability to discipline themselves before they reach maturity…”
Self-respect is also what children admire. Parents show self-respect, almost unconsciously, by living by their stated values. If parents believe in hard work, they themselves are hard workers. If parents encourage healthy eating, they themselves are moderate eaters. Parents who live by their values earn the respect of their children. “A parent who respects himself doesn’t need to buttress his security by demanding respect from his child.  Secure in himself, he will not feel his authority threatened and will accept his child—at times—showing lack of respect for him, as particularly young children are occasionally apt to do.”

This gift of discipline will help children as they enter adolescence and adulthood. “As the child grows older, he will no longer admire his parents so single-mindedly; among the widening circle of his acquaintances they will begin to seem less than perfect.” Children, however, will seek out teachers and friends who model the same self-control and self-respect as their parents. As “good enough parents,” we can only hope to model self-control and self-respect the best we can for our young children.

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