A great deal can and is said about discipline. I am not going to engage in ideological battles about it. One reason that I don’t like engaging in those battles is that most of the time people who passionately debate each other are not clear about what they mean by discipline.
What I mean by discipline is this: a regular schedule that works for all involved, and the stamina to stay with a project. Perhaps there are people with temperaments and lifestyles that can do without regularity but I’m not one.
There are certainly people who swear by accomplishing great things by fits and starts, but I’m not one of those either. The way I am may be unfair to my son but kids are inevitably caught up in the way their parents are, so there’s no point in pretending otherwise or even desperately trying to be otherwise.
So… I need regularity and I believe in developing staying power and commitment. How do I set a schedule and goals for my kid who is bent on fighting me all the way?
One of the things that I absolutely abhor is telling people what to do. I am not a good task master at all and even worse at policing. I used to be a great boss at work because at the slightest resistance from my staff I would just do the work myself. I am yet to learn how to “supervise” others – except my highly motivated college students. Alas, my own kid does not behave in a “highly motivated” fashion with me and tends to take advantage of me the way my staff used to. One major problem of teaching your own kid!
Perhaps I should look at the power/authority dynamic that I am faced with in teaching Jack as a sort of existential challenge, having to do what I really don’t like to do. The challenge is this: staying true to who I am (disciplined and committed) without falling into power dynamics that I hate and that my son, in his perpetual quest to push limits, is constantly driving me toward.
I also have the character weakness of having a bad temper. I get worked up and I do blow up. This certainly doesn’t help matters, and while I am constantly trying to improve my temper I can’t say I expect that I will ever be a model of “equanimity and poise” (hah!).
The reason I say these things is to put my attempts at “discipline” in context. I have written about being deeply troubled by Jack’s never-ending hunger for more and more screen time here and here. It really is a constant battle that I keep failing at, partly because I hate policing so much.
I have tried setting time limits: this much time for screen activity, this much time for reading, this much time for this and that. When you are dealing with a kid who never “remembers” boundaries he has agreed to, loses track of time, and is endlessly bargaining and resisting, it is not easy to enforce time limits. If you set an alarm clock for him you have to set one for yourself too, which means that you have to interrupt what you are doing (which is often work that needs concentration) to go and engage in an unpleasant and disrupting (to your own work) encounter with an 11-year old. One too many arguments and downright fights ensue.
So last (school) year I gave up on setting concrete time limits. The best I could do was to come up with a “schedule” that I posted up in Jack’s room. “Every day Jack has to do three things: Studying, Free Reading, Outing.” The rest of the time he was free to do what he wanted, including screen time. It roughly worked out like this: in the mornings Jack had free screen time and did some reading (both assigned by me as part of “study” time and books of his choice as part of “free reading” time). In the afternoons we had lessons together and then he went on an outing (park with other kids, skateboarding, the afterschool program I signed him up in, etc.).
This was roughly the schedule. I say “roughly” partly because I had a lot of distractions myself (family and work responsibilities) that interfered with me holding my end of the “regularity” bargain. And once I had a difficult time sticking to my own rules how could I blame Jack for pushing and trying to extend his limits!
Still, I think this idea is still the most workable: setting down general guidelines for what you expect to get done in every day and not quibble over exact hours and minutes assigned to each one. I will definitely work with this "schedule" next school year.
Meanwhile, in recognition of summer vacation I took down the sign in Jack’s room reminding him of the three things he must do every day. Right now, it being summer, I don’t care if he “reads” every day and certainly don’t expect him to “study.”
But… that only made the beast of screen time raise its ugly head with a vengeance. With days a little too hot for skateboarding and friends either out of town or with too much time on their hands, sitting in front of screens and playing or surfing the net became all-consuming.
Back to arguments and fights… and my own meltdown. This time around my husband had to get involved in setting and enforcing limits. Two hours of screen time every day. That’s it. Dad says so. No use trying to bully mom.
Whew… nothing like a little authority!
And to scare Jack's pants off I showed him this: Boy dies of blood clot after 12 hours of video gaming.
Nothing like some scare tactic either!