Not Just for Trouble Makers
Discipline has become a dirty word. It's what we as a society dole out to poorly-behaved children, misguided politicians and criminals. And "disciplinary action", ranging from verbal reprimands to imprisonment, is the realm of principals and law enforcement officials. But true discipline does not have to involve punishment.
The word "discipline" stems from the Latin disciplina - teaching and learning – the same root as the word "disciple." Discipline, then, is teaching – ones self or others. And contrary to popular opinion, discipline is a good thing. It is a way of life. In fact, we cannot thrive as individuals or as a society without discipline. And we cannot raise our children without it.
If you aren't convinced of the value of discipline, you might want to take a walk down the street, to see the effects of its archenemy. It's called "freedom." Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement – the unbridled freedom to be and do and have everything the heart desires. The people in the street are bound by very few laws and restrictions. But how free are they?
If a person on a diet passes a restaurant, smells food and walks inside to wolf down a Super Burger and fries, she is enslaved to her physical cravings. If a reporter gets the scoop on a great story that may harm people, and has it published for his moment in the limelight, he is enslaved to his ego.
Any person who lives an unrestricted life is enslaved to his desires. He has no will power; he can't tell himself 'no.' He is driven by what he wants - not by the great person he truly wants to become. He is, in essence, no different than an animal that eats, sleeps and kills by instinct. By contrast, discipline lets a person overcome desire, for a greater good. A disciplined person is truly free.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us – Ein lecha ben chorin ela me she'osek b'Torah - only a person who lives according to the Torah is free. The Torah appears to be very constricting. There are laws governing every aspect of our lives. What we eat, wear and do; even how we tie our shoelaces. But it is the ultimate source of discipline – because it teaches us to become masters over our desires. It is so liberating to have an authoritative guide that teaches us the what's, whens, where's, and how's of life.
Our "free" society has filtered down to our families – sometimes on the advice of so-called experts. One prominent Brooklyn physician tells his patient's parents that their children need "only love." And autonomy and self-expression are the new by-words in child rearing. Now I am not saying that autonomy and self-expression are bad – and I definitely believe that we must give our children mega doses of love. But discipline is crucial.
Discipline = Structure
Several years ago, The Jewish Observer featured an article guiding parents through the pitfalls of Chol Hamo'ed. The article told the story of a family that planned the "perfect" outing to an amusement park. The parents were totally dedicated to giving their children a grand time – but by day's end, everyone was miserable. The children had wanted to go on more rides, get more prizes, and stay longer – and the parents had been cajoled into spending much more time and money than they meant to. Everyone was hungry and tired. The car ride home was a veritable shouting match, with fights, screaming, and tears. The parents wondered where they had gone wrong.
The day could have been saved with the building blocks of family discipline – goal setting, planning, structure, and parental authority. The goal of the trip may have been set as "strengthening the family by spending fun, quality time together". Unless the family's goal is to try out every ride in the park, there is no problem with setting limits on time and money spent, because the family can spend fun, quality time together on even a few rides.
At a family meeting before the trip, the parents could have created a plan for the trip, by outlining the day's schedule, and letting their children know what was expected. They could have said, for instance, that everyone would go on three rides, get $5 spending money, eat lunch at 12:00, and be at the gate, ready to go home, at 4:30.
The plan would have lent structure to their day. Such structure fits the goal – and eliminates whining, before it even begins, because everyone knows exactly what to expect. If trouble does arise, and children ask to stay longer, parents can exercise their parental authority, without guilt. The final decision about anything is theirs and theirs alone.
Proponents of "freedom" might argue that this is too rigid; that spontaneity is more natural and fun. But experience has shown that children thrive on structure.
"When I was growing up, evenings were free-for-all in our house," says Leah, a young mother of three. "We often served ourselves cereal and sandwiches for supper. We also did homework at random, played in the street until everyone else on the block went inside, and went to sleep when our eyelids shut."
"Our next door neighbor's family schedule could have been set in stone. Supper at 5:30, then homework, baths, and bed – no questions asked. We used to make fun of them – but deep inside my heart, I was jealous. I was tired of coming to school without homework, and I was tired of being tired. I wanted someone to make me go to bed."
In reality, structure is not confining; it is liberating. It is also a panacea for many childhood troubles.
The chronic latecomer needs structure in the evening – a planned nightly routine that starts when she gets home from school, and carries over to the morning. The distractible child needs structured studying – maybe a dedicated homework spot, in a quiet part of the house. The child who fights may need structure in his room – perhaps he would get along better with others, if his treasures are given a special space, safely out of reach of curious siblings. And the overweight child needs structured meals – he will learn healthy eating and gain food security, when he knows exactly when meals and snacks will be served.
Discipline and structure are Jewish concepts. Discipline is the ability to overcome desire – and desire is the Yetzer Hara. We even define strength as self-discipline – as the Mishna says, Eizehu gibor, hakovesh es yitzro - who is the strong one? He who masters his evil inclination.
Many a heavyweight boxer has trouble controlling his basest instincts – and if you pit him against a frail ninety year old who fights exhaustion, and gets out of bed to go to shul, the old man wins, hands down.
In his book "Power Living – Mastering the Art of Self Discipline", author Michael Janke writes -
"The ability to control our emotions, actions, words, and thoughts has always been one of man's most difficult tasks." He adds that our generation is raised on instant gratification – and that "it is more difficult to exert self-control over our lives today than at any other time in human history". Difficult, perhaps – but crucial to ourselves, our children, and all of society.
An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Rifka Schonfeld is the founder and director of SOS,an educational program servicing all grade levels in secular and Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist ,she has given dynamic workshops and set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations,GED preparation,social skills training and shidduch coaching focusing on building self esteem and self awareness. Rifka can be reached at 718 382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or view at rifkaschonfeldsos.com .