Language that Promotes Self-Discipline and Responsibility

Ready for school illustration by Jennifer Miller

I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.

– Fred Rogers

School has begun. After a few weeks pass, the excitement seems to wear off. Jumping out of bed may change to dawdling. After all, learning is hard work and attention to rules, the following of routines and the business of school in general does not motivate the average child. So how can we proactively think about the days to come and prepare ourselves for keeping on track?

I notice, despite my best intentions and knowledge of how I would ideally conduct the morning routine, I begin to nag. “Finish your breakfast.” “Take in your dishes.” “Get dressed.” “You forgot your socks?” “Come on, we’re going to be late!” The pitch crescendoes as the nagging progresses. Though it often feels necessary, I know there’s a better way.

Because I am an educator, I often look to the best practices of the teachers whom I admire the most and ask, “What would they do in these circumstances?” They may respectfully laugh at my one child as opposed to their 20+ shining faces. And then they would tell me there is indeed a better way.

Self-discipline is a learned skill that must be exercised and practiced over the course of childhood into adulthood. Frustrated parents may feel it is an elusive concept. “How can I help my six year old practice self-discipline?” It is a critical skill requiring impulse control in order for a person to achieve any goal, big or small. But we don’t set aside twenty minutes each week for a lesson at home on self-discipline. Though it can have just as great an impact on a life as mastering the piano, an allotted time to practice is simply not practical in family life. So then, we must look to our daily routines and see if there are windows of opportunity for practice. The morning routine is a perfect chance if we approach it as such.

If I involve my child in planning out his morning routine in advance, formalizing it (writing it down) and ensuring that we’ve gone through each step and eliminated any potential problems (i.e. Mommy forgot to wash the socks), then he is better prepared for success. But what happens when, inevitably, he moves slowly or things go awry? My mommy nagging instinct may kick in. Instead I remind him about his plan for the morning routine. And I reinforce, or notice, when he is demonstrating he knows what to do and how to move it along. “What’s the difference?“ you may ask. The difference lies in the tone. For example, you may be tempted to bark,

“Jack Miller, what are you supposed to be doing now? Get upstairs and brush your teeth. Hurry up, kid. Do you want us to be late? You know where the toothpaste is!” And then,

“Why can’t you move faster? You did the other morning!”


Calmly and without strong emotion: “What’s next on our routine poster? Remember, we said you could brush your teeth in two minutes while we set the timer? Ready, go.” And then,

“I notice you accomplished your goal. You left the bathroom before the timer went off.”

The difference is significant. In the first example, the parent is attempting to control his behavior and so he feels no ownership. He may even feel a sense of rebellion and want to slow down. Certainly he does not leave the interaction with a sense of empowerment. But in the second example, the child has established his own plan with your support. Your reminders are helpful and firm. You are being his coach. I suspect that he’ll get the job done, feel that he has achieved his small morning goal himself and start the day feeling positively about his capabilities. The following are some additional examples.


“Your room is a pig sty. Clean it up!”

Promoting self-discipline:

“Do you want help with putting away your books or your Legos?”
(Offer a limited choice, both of which would accomplish the goal and be acceptable to you.)

“Come on. It’s time to do your homework. You’ve got to get it done. Five more minutes
and then you’ve got to work on it….”

Promoting self-discipline:

“When the timer goes off, homework begins.”
(Use a timer as a reminder and a support for transitions.)


“We have to leave the playground now. We’ve got to go. We’ll be late for dinner.”… “Okay, one last time but then, we have to go!”

Promoting self-discipline:

“Pick your last activity on the playground. What will it be?”
(Set expectations. Give one simple choice and then, move on. Don’t leave room for negotiations.)


“It’s time to go to piano lessons. Get on your shoes. Come on. Put that toy away. Come on. We are going to be late.”

Promoting self-discipline:

“It’s time to go to piano lessons. You’ll need your shoes.”
(Be direct, brief, calm, say it once and give one direction at a time. Move on with your own preparations.)

But the most powerful way to promote self-disciplined behaviors is to notice and point out when you see your child acting responsibly – even in small ways. Particularly if you are having difficulty with a routine or rule, become a keen observer of your child’s behavior. Every time they improve or demonstrate responsibility, call it out. “I notice you put your bath toys back in the bin on your own.” You don’t need to shower them with praise. Just your attention to their positive behavior will be their greatest reward. Often we become sensitized to our children’s missteps and get in the habit of correcting them over and again. Instead think about how you may reinforce the positive behaviors and then model and teach those that you don’t see happening.

These small opportunities in a daily routine to facilitate our children’s practice of self-discipline can and will accumulate over the years preparing our children to take on greater and more meaningful challenges. They will have internalized what it takes to be self-disciplined and in turn, use that skill to achieve their dreams – and yours along with them.


For further reading on encouraging and teaching positive behaviors through language, check out:

Denton, P. (2007). The Power of Our Words; Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Nelsen, J., Erwin, C. & Duffy, R.A. (2007). Positive Discipline for Preschoolers (3rd. Edition). NY: Three Rivers Press.

Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive Discipline. NY: Ballantine Books.

7 Comments on “Language that Promotes Self-Discipline and Responsibility”

  1. This topic really resonated with me. I find myself falling into those nagging patterns! I find that once I start, it spirals into more nagging. Thanks for the useful examples of language that will be more useful to employ!

  2. Thanks for the suggestions on how to mend my nagging ways. Oh my! Nag, nag, nag…I’m like a drill sargent. Funny how I derail my own goals of teaching my children how to be responsible aka get themselves ready for school. Self-discipline. We’re working on it! :o)

  3. Always ready but for what? That is the real question!!!!!! Love, Maaaa Really like your illustration this week.

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