Other-Imposed Discipline vs. Self-Discipline


We’ve been looking at what discipline means in the last two Family Connections. Let’s explore this further by differentiating between externally administered (“other-imposed”) and internally administered (“self-imposed”) discipline. These are two radically different kinds of control-type discipline.

Everyone is familiar with the term self-discipline, but what does it actually mean? Psychologists use the term “locus of control.” Self-discipline means the locus of control is inside the person, while with discipline enforced by others, the locus of control is outside the person – in fact it is inside the controller.

We don’t encounter much controversy about whether self-control is desirable. Most everyone places a high value on children being capable of self-control, self-regulation and self-discipline. But there is still much controversy over what the best way is to foster these desired traits in children and youth.

Most parents and teachers take the position that children eventually will develop inner control automatically, as a direct result of adults applying outer control (discipline). This belief still stems from the Freudian theory that claims that as children get older they will gradually internalize the early coercive controls of parents and other adults, until eventually those outer controls are transformed into inner controls and self-discipline. However, considerable evidence exists refuting this theory as well as everyday observation which is telling us that self-discipline isn’t formed that way. Remember the adage “when the cat is away, the mice will play”? Well, when adult controllers turn their backs, youngsters usually show little self-control. Sometimes they rebelliously do exactly what the adult authority has previously prohibited them from doing. Children who meekly submit to parental authority often turn into rebellious teenage delinquents later, reacting aggressively to all adult authority, incapable of any self-control or self-discipline.

Self-disciplined youngsters, however, are those who have always been given considerable personal freedom. Why? Because they have been allowed the chance to make many of their own choices and decisions. Children will learn to control or limit behavior that is disturbing to adults only if those adults have shown a similar consideration for them; children will use self-control to follow rules when they have been given the chance to join with adults in deciding what those rules should be.

The Family Connection we will continue to explore how disciplining kids does not produce disciplined kids, in other words, how adult-imposed (“other-imposed”) discipline does not produce self-disciplined children.