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.”



15 replies
  1. Liza
    Liza says:

    But.. grit requires self-discipline. Perseverance in a long run is partly based on self-discipline, you need it to handle all ups and downs, mostly downs when motivation is low. And both grit and self-discipline are parts of executive functions, and you EF predict success not only in academic performance but in life success as well.

    It seems to me that it is the excess of self-discipline which is dangerous. It suppresses another important executive function – cognitive flexibility. Which is a fundament for the creativity, that lets your son to come up with great ideas.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I disagree. I think grit requires the ability to hope. Which is what makes you resilient. And the key to resilience is to essentially having stocked up on enough happiness to get you through the hard times and be able to remember that things will be better again.

  2. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    “And the thought of making my kids more self-disciplined makes me sad” – ok so you can’t make or teach more self-discipline (the clue is in the ‘self’). This post would make more sense to me if you replace ‘self-discipline’ with ‘obedience’. You can’t nag someone into being more self-disciplined, you can only nurture it by modelling it (which you do all the time, despite your protests) and by setting worthwhile limits with empathy. So give everyone (yourself included) a break and no matter how glorious that red, yellow & green chard looks in the garden, for goodness sake, don’t make them pick and eat it in the name of self-discipline (disclaimer: I hate chard, I have tried to love it but just can’t)

  3. Tina
    Tina says:


    It completely makes sense to me. This is your older son, the NT, right? Plus, this is your NT kid who doesn’t really like to do outside chores, right? I am an NF, but I find the basic every day tasks incredibly draining. For me it is putting the trash cans away each week.

    It makes sense to me that Ns in general would find these types of basic, repetitive tasks boring and uninteresting and a drain of their energy. My SJ hubby is way better at these types of basic everyday things because of his “right now” focus on getting things done.

    If you want to teach “self-discipline” he needs to learn self-discipline about things that are important to him. What is the payoff for your son to get the vegetables? Not that I’m saying you should pay him, but does he like the veggies and want to eat them? If not is there some other intrinsic reward to collecting the veggies? If not why bother? If only to avoid your nagging, that may not be enough motivation.

    Then you have to help him create a system to make those things happen. And you may be part of the system to keep him on track. For example, my son and I each make our beds (almost) everyday. We just view it as part of our getting ready routine in the morning, breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, make beds. And after a couple of years, we’re pretty good at getting it all done with minimal complaining from him.

    I mostly work from home, but I do have a part time nanny for when I need to get work done. I find that I am far more disciplined than most of my co-workers (at least compared to what they tell me) and the reason for that is because of the system I have created. The nanny comes, I get work done. No exceptions. Because I know I won’t have time to do it any other time.

    I still think self-discipline is important, but you can’t teach someone self-discipline if you are trying to do it with things that they hate. Isn’t that kind of like a forced curriculum that you are always railing against?

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I recently saw this tweet by Vala Afshar of Salesforce on long term thinking –

    Smart leaders plan in decades.
    Think in years.
    Work in months.
    Live in days.
    Celebrate in moments.

    I still think self-discipline is important but I do like the above.

  5. Ol
    Ol says:

    Oh my gosh. I just realized that Penelope lives on a farm in Wisconsin so her kids can put that on an application and get in to a better college.

  6. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Self discipline is incredibly hard to grow. Although everyone needs to grow in self-control (the ability to think before they act, not react with angry outbursts, etc.), self-discipline is an entirely seperate matter. Instead of teaching kids self-control, it’s important to teach them to build systems.

    I have a system for cooking, a system for cleaning, a system for exercising, and a system for writing. Without this, we would eat out every day, live in a mess, I would be fat, and I would never get any work done.

  7. sarah faulkner
    sarah faulkner says:

    I think self discipline looks different according to each type. For me, ENTP, follow through. I have more focus in the morning so school and paper work have to be done before noon. Otherwise my mentality for that is gone.

    My husband, an ESFP, loves to get tasks done at the end of the day. He wont forget and it helps him relax. If he tries at the begining he is to focused on who he is going to meet, see, and say.

    To me, self discipline is more of learning how to convince yourself, or how to pawn it off. That is probably what makes people happy – no guilt over who they are not.

  8. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Personally, I think that self discipline is what helps you avoid pain and struggle but not what makes you happy as an adult. It’s only one part of the equation.

    I think knowing yourself very well and changing the way you view yourself makes more sense. For example, instead of mustering all the will power to be disciplined daily on doing something (or not doing) I change the way I view myself. I do or don’t do because it aligns with who I am or doesn’t.

    I started running again because I viewed myself as a healthy person in charge of her own chemistry (I was fighting depression). A person who runs normally eats healthy to help you run better. Eventually I stopped drinking alcohol and it didn’t take an ounce of will power. It just happened. I love wine but the effect it has on me doesn’t enable other areas of my life that are central to who I am.

    i think discipline is the bridge to get you to form new habits. But it’s not what maintains you there. Your identity and when how you view yourself and your outward behavior align well creates a self sustaining cycle of thoughts. And thoughts become behaviors.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Karelys, I’ve missed you so much! I figured that you were going through some stuff and had less time to comment.

      By the way, nearly all of your comments could work as stand-alone blog posts. I ‘m sure I would while away many happy hours reading through the Karelys Blog archives.

  9. Leonie
    Leonie says:

    Penelope this is an example of extreme cherry picking on your part to prove a point.

    Don’t your sons play music and practice on a daily basis? That takes an enormous amount of self discipline. You say that you unschool and they decide how they spend their days. However, you drive hours for lessons and you threaten to cancel those lessons if they don’t practice. These are very concrete examples of teaching self discipline. Also, aren’t both boys responsible for other chores around the farm? I vaguely recal you mentioning something to this effect in other posts.

    You picked a chore that he doesn’t enjoy and doesn’t see any value in to compare to teaching self discipline (and school by extension.)

    not your best work

  10. Susan
    Susan says:

    I see the correlation, but not causation for this. So you need self-discipline for academics. So? You also need it for music lessons, pursuing a hobby, getting really good at video games, taking care of a farm – all things your boys seem to do that may in fact be very useful for adult life.

    Self-discipline isn’t negated simply because it’s useful for academics.

    • Leonie
      Leonie says:


      By this logic Penelope’s next articles should be; kids who attend school play sports, therefore you should encourage your kids to be sedentary; or kids who succeed at school wake up early, so getting up before noon leads to failure in adult life. The list goes on.

      Succeeding at school takes a lot of discipline. P tries to rationalize this correlation by saying that it only takes discipline for short-term thinking. I strongly disagree. School requires children to have extreme long-term thinking beyond what is healthy. Do well in elementary school so you’ll be prepared for middle school, so you can do well in high school, so you can get into a good college, so you can get into a good graduate program so you can get a job you like – and become a happy and successful adult!

      Ugh. No thanks.

      I would much rather my daughter focus on developing skills and talents relevant to what she’s interested in at present. No, I do not see the value of having the long-term thinking skills to wait until she’s in college (or later) to pursue her passions. (You want to be an astronaut? Do this mindless worksheet in elementary school so you can succeed academically and maybe get hired by NASA in 20 years. It would take a lot of discipline and long-term thinking to get through the drudgery of school in pursuit of that goal – there has to be a better way.)

      Along the same lines, something else that I dislike about how P framed the argument that long term thinking is superior to short-term goals. They are two sides of the same coin, and the most successful people are able to break down long term plans into smaller short-term goals. These short-term goals are especially important for children, who are only just starting to explore and develop their interests/talents.

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Having self-discipline is actually very important! Blindly obeying orders, not so much.

    Self-discipline can lead to self-actualization. It can lead to mastery. It also helps one from devolving into hedonism.

    Blindly following authority, being a sheeple, not questioning the rules…that scares me.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *