By Selwyn Duke
We need it if we want to be able to hold down a job or do well in school. It is a must if we're going to adhere to an exercise regimen or diet; it is an important thing that is a prerequisite for the attainment of many other important things. Most of us would like more of it, and we tend to admire those who exhibit it in abundance and look down on those who are sorely lacking in it. It was one of the characteristic strengths of civilizations like the ancient Spartans, and the dearth of it has become one of the characteristic weaknesses of ours. The "it" is the invaluable personality trait called discipline.
Until quite recently, tradition and the harsh realities that existence naturally imposed upon us ensured that a great measure of discipline would be instilled in every individual as a matter of course. However, the relative ease of living that modern conveniences allow us has created a climate that's quite pleasing to that breed of human being called a "slacker." More significantly, the unraveling of tradition has led to the abandonment of parenting practices whose exercise naturally fostered discipline. Consequently, most of us are now rearing children who lack this necessary ingredient of success and happiness. So, let's examine what our great-grandparents knew instinctively.
How is discipline developed? Well, let's start by asking ourselves a question and reminding ourselves of some wisdom of antiquity. How is anything developed? The Bible tells us "Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." Now, it's important to note here that train doesn't mean tell; it doesn't mean show; it doesn't mean modeling behavior; it doesn't even just mean teach. Training involves all of those things and much, much more. Training is a long and arduous process that involves instruction, demonstration and repetitive practice for many years. It also involves something that has fallen out of vogue in this age of softness: forcing the trainee to do things he may not want to do. This means that the trainer may have to sometimes be something a modern person may not want to be: a drill sergeant.
Now, let's examine how this works in practice by applying it to something that will easily illustrate the point: the development of physical strength. If I want to gain strength, one thing is obvious: I will not transition from a ninety-five-pound weakling to a Samson overnight – my improvement will be incremental. Also, while I certainly will become stronger over time if I'm a youngster, I won't magically burst out of my clothes like the Incredible Hulk upon reaching a certain age. And, if I aspire to great heights and know I need some help, I will retain the services of a good trainer and place myself under his dominion. I will work on the techniques he instructs me in and I will pursue the conditioning goals he sets for me. I'll put my nose to the grindstone most every day and train vigorously, and if my trainer tells me to do one-hundred pushups a day or hold a position despite a torturous muscle burn, I'll do it whether I like it or not. As I progress, I'll gradually increase the weight, thereby increasing my strength, and soon what initially seemed like a heavy burden to me I'll hoist with ease. If I follow this course of action for many years, and it will take a long time, I'll have few peers in this arena.
The same is true of the development of discipline. A child won't develop discipline overnight; just as with weight-training the improvement will be gradual. Another similarity is that while the child will naturally gain at least some discipline over time, he won't automatically be bestowed with a sufficient amount of it at a certain age – it must be instilled in him. Additionally, a child may not know it, but he definitely needs help and his parents have to be that tough trainer. They have to force the child to do many things he may not like; they have to ensure that he does what he's supposed to do when he's supposed to do it. They have to make sure the child does his chores and homework on schedule, whether he likes it or not. They have to impose discipline on the child and they have to do this on a consistent basis – they have to TRAIN him.
Now, as time passes, schoolwork and other activities will become more demanding and this is tantamount to increasing the "weight" the child is training with. As he is forced to meet these responsibilities his "strength," which here, of course, is the mental strength called discipline, will grow. Then soon, what initially seemed like the most arduous of tasks will seem like a walk in the park. If his parents force him to follow this course of action for many years, he'll be a paragon of discipline.
This is necessary because the issue here really is one of tolerance, and no, I don't mean in the sense of being willing to abide anything and everything. I mean that applying oneself to that which one doesn't like is unpleasant – it induces psychological pain. Thankfully, though, we humans can develop a tolerance for a plethora of different things: drugs, snake venom and physical pain, just to name a few. Similarly, we can also develop tolerance for psychological pain. This is why writing twenty-five vocabulary words might have seemed like a chore to you at age eight, but now you wouldn't even bat an eye. It's why at the same age a spanking would have made you howl, but now it most likely wouldn't even raise a tear. And, it's why the weight regimen I followed at age nineteen seemed fairly daunting to me then, but seems like a breeze now.
The aspect of this matter that is last but certainly not least is that children learn through experience – they learn by doing. They won't have the fortitude to impose discipline on themselves, however, and this is why it must be imposed from the outside. As this is done over a period of time, the children will experience firsthand the benefits of being disciplined and then will have an incentive to impose it on themselves. In other words, they'll have the experience of achieving great things through the exercise of discipline, and will then feel at the very core of their being that it is a beautiful and admirable attribute.
But this all-important trait cannot be instilled absent good parenting. This is another reason why the touchy-feely, psychology-driven, permissive parenting that is the default mode of operation for virtually everyone raised in this modern era is so destructive. It's why we must come to understand that if you divorce tough love from love, you render it something less than love. It's why every parent must ask himself the question: do I have the discipline to discipline my children?