Apparently, we are rediscovering how important it is to develop a child’s self-discipline at an early age. A recent study in New Zealand has several folks blogging a great deal about their finding that over a 1,000 children studied over several decades reveals a strong correlation between kids who learn how to control themselves early in life and a much lower incidence of addiction in adult life. Somewhere back along the way we lost this “common sense” about children and who they grow up to become. Discipline is vital to a person’s happiness, and indispensable to the pursuit of an excellent education. Developing it, however, is difficult.
A significant part of my daily life is focused on this issue, so it is both easy and difficult for me to write a few hundred words on the subject. I hope I can boil it down. For my students I reduce this large idea of discipline down to a rather short sentence, “You must learn to discipline yourself so that others (namely, me) do not have to do so.” While I believe you could argue that some children are more prone to self-discipline than others, I still believe that much of what we call discipline is a set of learned skills and responses to the world around us. There are many natural laws that won’t tolerate disobedience – try to say “no” to gravity and it just won’t change its rules. But the discipline I am speaking of has particularly to do with the laws, rules, and skills of the learner.
Real education is a joy, because it demands a great deal of effort and pain to produce in the end a rewarding and permanent result – a changed life. The fact that no less a stellar educator than Mortimer J. Alder could write two articles that are almost identical, one called, “An Invitation of the Pain of Learning” and the other, “The Joy of Learning” is only sensible when you realize the pain he is calling us to is the necessary self-disciplines of hard thinking, close reading, multiple drafts of writing, and clear discussion. None of those things are easy, but they are some of the most rewarding and joyful acts of humanity. All too often, we want the joy without the pain. This just simply is not possible. You won’t gain anything in the gym physically without some grimace and sweat, and the same is true in the mental “gym.”
So much of teaching self-discipline is about learning to view authority correctly. Obviously, if I believe myself to be above or beyond authority, then I don’t have to succumb to any rules other than the ones I like. But if there is something “over” me, such as rules of composition, rules of thought, God, someone who knows more than me (a teacher), then I have to subjugate myself to those things as I am under them. So we find the nature of the student demanding that he become educated about Who God is, who he is, and how those two things form a view of hierarchy and authority in the student’s life.
Today it seems that any mention of such thoughts quickly brings the charges of legalism and lack of grace with them. I am confused by this. As I have already asserted, self-discipline is necessary for true liberty. No one can or should want to “do whatever they want” as this would defeat the whole notion of loving God and others more than ourselves. Self-discipline is the necessary skill that has learned to subjugate my own desire to that of God and His appointed “rulers” in my life so that I can be truly happy in His world. Only then is the student freed from those things that would prevent his happiness. Part of the idea of the “Liberal” arts is that it leads to liberty, which must be entered through the door of discipline.
I will close with this compelling statement from God’s Word:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)