I’ve been stressing about how I can teach my kids self-discipline. I have thought, for a long time, that self-discipline is the key to happiness. Because so many things that drive your happiness—what you eat, when you exercise, if you smoke—come down to self-discipline.
But I hate the idea of having to exert more self-discipline. I think it’s exhausting. And the thought of making my kids more self-disciplined makes me sad. For them. It’s so difficult.
Even when I try something that should require just a tiny bit of self-discipline, it always ends up feeling big. I told my older son to pick vegetables for dinner in the fall. It’s easy. There’s not much left. And there are no bugs.
He said he forgot how to pick the Swiss chard. As if I would let him off the hook for that.
So I gave a lesson. “There’s so much Swiss chard. Pick it any way you want. Just do it on your own—without me reminding you.”
He did it for three days and then he kept forgetting. Probably because he hates doing it. (Picking vegetables out of a garden is only fun for kids who don’t grow up on a farm.)
So I was really excited to see in Time magazine that “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable.”
Do you know what that means? That self-discipline does not help in adult life, because success in adult life is driven by something else. Self-discipline in kids doesn’t matter because we know that good grades don’t equate with a good career.
It seems to me that short-term thinking is what makes someone succeed in school. That kind of focus sounds like, “Get this week’s assignment done. Stay focused on the grade.” So short-term focus, manifesting as “self-discipline” leads to academic success.
On the other hand, long-term thinking is what makes us succeed after the school years are over. Time magazine says that the best predictor of success is a non-cognitive, nonphysical trait known as grit—defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
Kids who are oblivious to the present and the near-term are less likely to look self-disciplined, but they are more likely to succeed through a long-term focus. And I think we’ve just landed on another reason why kids who misbehave do better as adults.
Which reminds me: my son is terrible at picking vegetables, but he did write up a plan for the garden so that the fall vegetables will grow closer to the house so they are not as bad to pick in cold weather.
“You should do this,” he said, handing me the plan. And proving with certainty that he has no trouble thinking long-term, he added, “If you picked them then maybe we could sell them since really, no one in the family likes to eat winter vegetables but you.”