Q: How much should I worry about my 6-year-old's self-discipline, or how much should I focus on encouraging it? She's doesn't really thrive with lots of structure — some is good, obviously, but she definitely needs a good amount of leeway to make her own decisions about what she's doing and when. She is funny and interested in a lot and active and chatty, but sometimes that means she is very much not doing what she's supposed to — for example, sitting in her chair through dinner or listening in dance class (which we're not doing now for this reason). What is an appropriate amount of self-control for a 6-year-old, and how do we help encourage that?
A: If you want to waste your time and make yourself feel as though you are losing your parenting mind, you should worry about your child's self-discipline all the time. There is nothing that feels better and accomplishes less than worrying! The brain enjoys a good worry because it gives us the feeling that we are doing something, despite all evidence to the contrary. Worrying is not only unhelpful but also tends to spiral in on itself, creating more problems we cannot solve. So, keep your worrying to a minimum.
If you are going to abandon worry, then how much should you focus on your 6-year-old's self-discipline? There are many factors I don't know: Does her distractibility hurt her schooling and friendships? Are there learning and/or anxiety and/or other executive functioning issues afoot? Probably not, but 6 is right around the age when parents begin to see a difference between neurotypical children and children who have some extra skills and gifts. I use the words "skills" and "gifts," because I want to be clear: I don't see children with learning differences or different brains as lacking or deficient. I believe these are children for whom the common and narrow culture doesn't — and often refuses to — serve. So take a parenting moment and reflect on the larger picture of your daughter's life, and if you feel unsure or worried, please contact your pediatrician for more information and support.
Let's suppose your daughter is a run-of-the-mill 6-year-old. This age is also confusing because, while many other children may appear mature and self-disciplined, there is actually a large array of typical behaviors at this age. Because self-discipline (the ability to wait for rewards, handle big and small anticipations, see a larger picture, and learn lessons and apply them to the future) cannot be taught, some children are simply built to come to it sooner than others.
We are all born with different levels of adaptability, and your daughter simply may need more time to grow into her self-discipline. Read "The Orchid and the Dandelion" and see the Center for Parenting Education's temperament rating scale for more information.
Here's the amazing thing about humans: We may be born with our temperaments in place, but we can change. You are not going to fill your daughter with self-discipline as you would fill up an empty cup, but you can encourage some resilience in her. For instance, take dinner time. First, let's acknowledge that this is the worst hour of the day for all children, so adjust standards accordingly.
Second, let's aim for a reasonable amount of time to sit and eat. If your daughter can sit for five minutes, go for seven. If your daughter can sit for 10 minutes, go for 12. If your daughter can sit for 20 minutes, the standard has been met, and don't ask for more. Let her know the family is aiming for seven minutes of mealtime, and then sweeten the pot by making it fun. Yes, fun! Have a silly family meeting (I am a big fan of Family TableTopics cards), and end the dinner with a treat (strawberries and whipped cream is my favorite, but anything will do).
Another idea from Katherine Reynolds Lewis (author of "The Good News About Bad Behavior"): "Talk with her about your goals for a family meal and her need to be active. Suggest that when she gets up from the table, that's a signal that she's done eating," she says. "She can clear her plate and go play while the adults finish. Incorporate her ideas into a plan and then implement it." Any step in the direction of her hanging in there should be noticed and mentioned. You don't need to cheerlead; you are noticing effort because sustained effort leads to self-discipline! And it is okay, in other areas of her life, if she misses something because she's too chatty.
You will gather important information by allowing her experience some natural consequences. Say, for example, you are going to the movies but she cannot stop her activities and get on her shoes, despite your reminders. You may miss the movie. You may notice that your daughter could not control herself, and she will not learn from this consequence (pointing toward an ADD/ADHD implication), or you may notice that she weeps, and poof! All of a sudden, she seems to be able to focus a bit more and get through her tasks. In this case, suffering through a loss leads to the self-discipline needed to avoid the previous discomfort.
If it seems your daughter cannot control her impulses to chat and be funny, that should be viewed with compassion and not as a willpower issue.
As for dance, is her lack of self-discipline an actual problem? It sounds as if she's in dance class no more, but you could ask the teacher's opinion. It can also be the case that some teachers, though well-intentioned and talented dancers, are not meant to guide young children. Maybe your daughter needs to be a more unstructured activity, or no activities at all, which it sounds like you're considering. (Good for you! )
Focus first on the home and what you can handle, gather some information, and move on from there. As Reynolds Lewis says: "Your goal is to help her develop more discipline than she has now, to gently move her along the path of being more self-regulated and focused." I couldn't agree more.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.