While in the early stages, learners depend very much on the people around them for educational success because that's how the human brain is wired. The Self-Discipline Stage is a bridge into a whole new ball-game. By the upcoming Independence Stage, I expect my kids to recognize, seek out, set, and accomplish personal educational goals pretty much all on their own because they'll have a much more mature prefrontal cortex by then (which will increase their ability to think and act for themselves). I'll just be the cheer leader then. So the Self-Discipline Stage must bridge the gap between accountability to Mom and Dad and independence from Mom and Dad.
To accomplish this in our house, we've decided to continue mentoring and guiding our children toward worthy goals (obviously), but we also must find ways to truly let them be self-motivated in managing their time (without mom and dad hangin' on to their coattails as they try to make their way in this world a bit more on their own). We must ultimately let them lead the way in accomplishing their goals alone (in other words no nagging, prodding, manipulating, making up consequences, etc....that's way easier said than done, but I'm getting better).
Here are a few of our current parental strategies for educating our children during the Self-discipline stage:
- Let the child create his/her own plan. We continue to hold one-on-one mentor meetings, but during the Self-discipline stage, our child (I could just say Kenny because he's the only one there right now) comes prepared to share his upcoming weekly schedule with us (he uses a color-coded Google spreadsheet that he made). It shows when he plans to sleep, work, play, etc. We may give a few suggestions, but we primarily let him inform us about his short and long-term goals and how he plans to accomplish those goals. We want him to practice thinking for himself so he (and we) can see what happens before he truly is on his own. We don't make the final call on what his goals should be and how to accomplish them like we did during the Accountability Stage.
- Offer support. We assist our self-discipline child in finding educational opportunities and other inspiring adults to practice being accountable to...via online classes, scouts, community classes, public school classes, activities, etc. But choice of goals, classes, and completion of assignments related to any classes taken is much more (if not completely) on the child's shoulders during this stage.
- Don't pounce.If we have done our parenting job during the early years of our children's lives (spending lots of time and energy working our way up The Pyramid), then they already know our family values by the time they reach puberty. And now it's time for them to begin discovering for themselves if the values we have taught bring happiness...or not. In other words, we don't have to bombard our self-discipline kids with "So, do you have any homework tonight? When are you going to get it done?" as soon as they walk in the front door. They would easily detect that we would only be trying to selfishly resolve our own "I-hope-my-child-understands-time-management-and healthy-living" anxiety and would likely defend themselves against us in some way (various personalities defend themselves in different ways...but it's usually not pretty in any form). Instead, our children would prefer that we respect their current brain development and let them practice self-discipline without getting in their way. To not pounce often takes some serious self-discipline on our part.
Translating this to Kenny's case: After reviewing his schedule with him on Sundays, we simply observe him (in a positive way) throughout the week, drive him to where he needs to be, cheer him on, and accept that his choices are his and not ours. Sometimes he doesn't organize his time the way we would. Sometimes we feel like he wastes time. Sometimes he doesn't follow his schedule. Sometimes he makes mistakes. But we just keep letting him test how his choices affect his life and the lives of those around him. We celebrate with him when things go well. And we keep loving him and encouraging him when he's left to suffer a negative, natural consequence because of his choices (like feeling tired because he stayed up late to finish homework...when he could have prioritized homework ahead of video-game playing earlier in the day).
- Expect a report. Each week, we ask Kenny to report on his progress and review the natural consequences of his choices (which basically are "Whatever ya' focus your attention on gets accomplished or improves. Whatever ya' don't focus your attention on doesn't get done.") Did he accomplish his goals? Why or why not? What natural benefit or detriment came (or may come) as a result? Our biggest hope is that we can foster a parent-child relationship in which he feels safe being completely honest with himself and with us about his hopes, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths. We find that if our children expect that we will give them endless suggestions, they will sit quietly and not say a word...and their minds will drift far away. But if they expect that we will truly listen to their analysis of their own situation, they will open up and almost always come to the very conclusions we'd hope for them...all on their own. And more importantly, we find that when they come to meaningful conclusions themselves, something turns a light on in their brains and self-motivation (as opposed to extrinsic/parental motivation) gets their heart beating in a positive direction.
- Review natural consequences. Sometimes it feels appropriate to discuss a natural consequence immediately after an event ("I bet you were thirsty without your water bottle today. I wonder if you forgot it because your mind was busy with your Rubik's cube right before practice and then we rushed out the door so you wouldn't' be late. A little extra planning should easily fix that problem in the future. Let's go home and get you something to drink."). But a lot of times, we wait until the next mentor meeting to review natural consequences so our thoughts don't get absorbed as monotonous lectures. We want both him and us to be in a present mindset when we discuss behavioral progress and potential changes. Otherwise defensive walls just get higher and thicker.
- Don't invent unnatural consequences. In order for our kids to practice self-discipline, we have to put the control of their education in their hands. If we have to make up any consequences to control their motivation toward educational success, then we put ourselves in control of their self-discipline instead of them because we control whether or not that consequence gets enforced. This feeds the impulsive areas of the brain (for both parent and child), which makes long-term self-discipline even harder. For example, Kenny no longer receives an increased allowance from us for educational goals (like he did during the Accountability Stage) because he is not accountable to us for accomplishing them. He is accountable to himself, to his teachers, and to God. We are more like facilitators. Final judgement of academic goals and success/failure is simply not in our hands anymore during this natural stage of life that's intended to surge humans toward self-reliance. So we butt ourselves out (even though it's so tempting to stick our noses in to push the mire around sometimes). Instead, Kenny receives an 'A' from his teachers and the natural joy of being successfully in charge of his own education. He knows the importance of getting an education and he is choosing that path for himself. He knows he could sit like a bump on a log on our couch every day if he wanted to. We would really let him (honestly). But he has enough foresight (prefrontal cortex connections) to see that that's not a good idea for long-term happiness. Plus, his brain is not consumed with emotional defensive walls. He is free to choose. And that's very motivating.
- Be emotionally honest and let accountability rest on the child's shoulders. If a self-discipline child's choices cause stress on others, we let him know it and ask him to reconsider his actions and repair his mistakes. This typically doesn't apply to educational issues (at least for now), but I thought I'd mention it here anyways. As a member of our family, Kenny is still very much accountable to us (his parents) for much of his family-life behavior (like keeping his socks off the living room floor or being nice to his sister). If he irritates us, we pull him aside and let him know it. We don't absorb the natural consequences alongside him like we did when he was younger (less than age 8). But we also don't make him change. He still has to choose the peace that comes with positive change for himself. If he doesn't, the natural consequence is that he and the people around him will suffer more than if he doesn't fix his wrongs and change his course.
- A note about technology: To truly help our children master the skill of self-discipline (which their brains are quite ready for at this age), we have to let them experiment upon the values we've been teaching all these years. So, when it comes to technology during this stage, we no longer dictate when they can "get on" or when "time is up." They get to choose how much time to spend on their favorite games. This freedom makes for an interesting learning curve (and feels like a parental roller coaster). But we feel that they (and we) are ready for that responsibility during the self-discipline stage. We prefer they practice now...under our roof and in our loving care. The only thing we hound them about is that they must keep an honest record of how much time they do spend on technological entertainment (by signing in and out and adding up the minutes) so we can have an honest and open discussion with them come Sunday evening about how their time in the last seven days was used and how it affected their week and may affect their future.
- Honesty is the key...but what do we do if our Accountability and Self-discipline age children are not honest. This (of course) has happened...more than once and with various children. Figuring out how to handle sticky situations is a normal part of growing up. Lying, hiding, and rationalizing is one way of "resolving" challenges and it's usually easier than facing the truth in the short-term. So, we're not surprised that our children test the dishonesty method out a bit. It just becomes another opportunity for Brent and I to practice responding in a present-minded way (as opposed to defensive or offensive or absent). I'm documenting the details of a current situation in my journal these days in case inspiration strikes to share it publicly. My best advice for now is to seek inspiration out of true love for your child, which requires that a parent sacrifice (or set down) personal worries, anger, frustration, tension, etc, so the focus is truly on how to help the child progress rather than just disciplining the child to settle the parent's raw emotions. Children are incredibly defensive (and can become offensive) when parents discipline just to blow off personal steam. The results are not pretty.
- Keep inspiring. Even though our teens are much more in charge of choosing happiness or misery for themselves, they are still our children. We still spend lots of physical and emotional energy on building a positive relationship with them. We still seek to inspire them with the light that makes us happy. We still search for positive mentors to introduce them to. We still pray for them and ponder what we can do to influence them for good. Answers come.
I know that regardless of whether Kenny gets his education at home, online, or at a school, he will gain the most self-worth if he takes control of his own education (deciding what to take and how much effort to put in) while I take the back seat job of moral supporter as opposed to driver.
We have an excellent, top-rated middle school in the community. After talking with yet another awesome principal who recommended Kenny pick which 6th grade classes he would like to take, Kenny decided to enroll in PE, Chinese, math (he qualified for high honors), science, and creative arts as well as band (saxophone) and orchestra (cello). He is gone every day from about 7 am until 12:30, which includes eating lunch at school. He has choir, scouts, orchestra, musical rehearsals, and sometimes soccer in the evenings.
Because he did 7th grade level grammar with me at home last year and it's not his favorite subject, he's taking the year off in that subject.
During his few hours at home in the afternoons, he reads a lot, does some free writing, is supposed to practice instruments, and still enjoys doing history with us. (And he's pretty good at squeezing in a good 30-60 minutes of video-game playing on the tablet...Minecraft is a current favorite.)
He gets himself up, showers, packs his own lunch, and stays on top of his homework each day without any prodding or pushing or checking or even much helping from us.
He's a straight-A student (all from the public school...I don't give official grades here at home). His teachers have good things to say about having him in class.
Socially...he's very happy and confident. He comes home chatting about various teachers and kids. He makes new friends easily. He does lots of texting. His social challenges from several years ago are minimal...in fact, I would say that his social sensitivity is mostly a strength now instead of a weakness.
Pardon me for all that braggin'. But Kenny really is a good kid. Of course he's a normal pre-teen in so many ways as well...but that's part of who is he right now and I only have a few years to appreciate that part about him, too. So, I like Kenny just how he is.
All in all...I honestly feel that giving Kenny (and our future self-discipline kids) so much lovely time to freely explore in the safety of our family world during his younger years while his brain was still adding crucial connections filled his soul up with security and confidence and has better prepared him to go out into the world to be his own person that can choose wisely for himself amidst all the to and fro peer pressures of middle school.
<middle school is just one big morph zone>