The Need for Discipline

Why would an adult have a craving for discipline?

As a Discipline Coach, I am of the opinion that it is healthy and natural to seek a sense of external order. Discipline efficiently sorts and solves many of the problems and chaos experienced within. After all, most of us started life with at least a semblance of discipline in our family lives, so why should it stop as adults?

Let’s examine the relevance of discipline when it is applied in childhood. We all know that children need boundaries. They need to understand that there are consequences when it comes to their actions. Many a parent has been criticised for not disciplining their children, especially when their little darlings are running amok in a restaurant or cafe. We take it for granted that discipline is a natural and essential part of early life.

You may have flashbacks to your own childhood and those moments of thinking ‘It’s not fair!’ when you were being disciplined. You would have been very pleased, in such a moment, to throw away the shackles of rules and consequences, but what is life really like for the child without boundaries?

Research* shows that they tend to be unhappy, angry and even resentful. They lack self-control and empathy. They may struggle to fit within the bounds of society, and making friends is difficult when they are unpleasant and uncooperative with peers. They lack respect for their parents and others who are responsible for their wellbeing, and they are more likely to engage in behaviours that are harmful for themselves and others. They will not understand appropriate behaviour and they will be less likely to know how to share and be patient. Would you choose to raise a child with those outcomes?

It seems reasonable to use discipline when it means that you will raise a child who demonstrates empowered traits such as self confidence, self sufficiency, and self control; a child who can be responsible and caring, who owns up to their mistakes without fear, who tries to be ‘good’ more often than not and who makes friends easily. This child would potentially have a better experience of childhood and adolescence, and may have a better shot at success and happiness in life. At the very least, parents will have a better time of raising such a child, or of reaping what they sowed.

If it is perfectly acceptable for a child or even an adolescent to be raised in an environment of discipline, why is it okay to let this lapse once we are adults?

As adults, we might easily assume that we’ve learnt all there is to learn once we hit 18 or 21 years of age. We gallop into the sunset of infinite adulthood to live happily ever after; free of parental restrictions at last! Our twenties, on the whole, are taken up with the experimentation of life and we navigate these wild waters with the disciplinary life raft our parents threw us in our formative years. If you were disciplined as a child, that early training will hold you in good stead for a while. However, life has its way of throwing logs and rapids at us as we decide our course, which can cause damage to the life raft. It may eventually spring a leak. There is no end to the external consequences of each of our decisions and actions and without the life raft, some of us are in trouble once more.

We float and bump our way through life as the edges of our old boundaries soften and blur. Where we once knew how to regulate ourselves, we suddenly find a lack of control in our behaviour. It becomes easier to overeat, or to waste time doing unproductive things. We do less to take care of ourselves. We stay up late, take substances, take risks, and let our morals slide. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but if this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Eventually, even the most disciplined child can turn into an undisciplined adult.

What about those adults who lacked discipline from the beginning? They will either make a concerted effort to overcome that early deficit and become outstanding examples to us all, or they will continue their unruly ways and lead a life that lacks confidence, responsibility and self respect. They may not learn from their mistakes soon enough and their unacceptable behaviour can lead to real trouble. That lack of discipline can make you obese when it comes to eating, or to vegging out on the couch instead of getting out and enjoying life. It may lead to life as an alcoholic or with some other drug dependency, or you may end up with a restraining order against you. Life has a way of providing external consequences and some will find themselves on the other side of law enforcement. Ironically, a lack of discipline in life can land you in a place where all you’ll get is discipline; discipline, confinement and three bland meals a day.

I have been in contact with countless university students who report a shared experience: that their parents were too easy on them and they feel that they never received the discipline they should have had when growing up. As a result, these students struggle with their study commitments and are often on the verge of failure by the time they contact me. They feel weighed-down by the debt of their education (often paid for by well-meaning parents) and by their intrinsic lack of focus. They feel guilty about the sacrifices their parents made in providing their expensive tertiary education and they regret that they are wasting it even as they allow it to continue. These students mention a strong urge for immediate discipline. They seem to sense the need for at least one severe dose to undo the damage of years of neglect. If only it were that simple.

A person lacking discipline is in a state of neglect. Their internal world is neglected. This occurred because they either let it become neglected as adults, or because it was never tended to in the first place. This internal neglect displays outwardly as poor behaviour and it comes in all forms: bad decisions, disrespect, rudeness, laziness, untidiness, sloppiness, tardiness, lack of control and addictiveness. In short, they lack self-discipline.

Those who lack internal discipline will eventually be disciplined by life in an external (and usually unpleasant) way. It is far better to cultivate your internal strengths to protect yourself. The tools of self-discipline include self control, appropriate behavioural impulses, self-respect and self-confidence. If you cannot work on your internal resources on your own, then it is absolutely acceptable to seek out the services of a discipline expert to help keep you on the straight and narrow towards self-discipline.

For an adult who lacks self-discipline, an intensive period of correction may be the answer, but it won’t happen in one magical session. If you believe that one discipline lesson will change your habits and mindset forever, then you should also believe in magic beans and a golden goose. Wake up, people! Building (or rebuilding) your internal world takes time, care and patience. It requires the guidance of someone who cares about you and who will give you honest feedback and accountability as you apply these concepts. Depending on the recipient, it is often at its most efficacious when it involves a careful regime of punishment and reward over time.

Some of the best things in life do not come to us easily, and being disciplined is not an easy choice. It is a courageous choice to choose the path of external discipline with the goal of developing self-discipline, but when it comes to reaping what you sow, you will be proud of all that you cultivate. Working with a discipline coach is one option towards that outcome.

Effective discipline: a healthy approachPaediatr Child Health. 2004;9(1):43-52. doi:10.1093/pch/9.1.43