Teaching Teens Self-Discipline

A year ago twelve-year-old David broke his arm. Our hearts went out to him as we watched him wince with pain, but three days recuperating at home, plus the sympathy heaped upon him at school, erased a good deal of the trauma.

It wasn’t long, however, before he came crashing back to reality. Reality was a broken right arm in a cast that left only an inch of fingers showing, with term papers due, hunger that up to now only a deft right hand could alleviate, a cow to milk, and Scout camp to attend. Despair hit him hard, and he looked at both of us for the sympathy he was sure he deserved.

He first negotiated with his dad concerning the cow. Anyone could see that a one-handed milker was inefficient. Surely dad would take over his chore for the next six weeks. Food would obviously have to be limited to milk shakes and pizza, something a lefty could manage; school work would have to be given the benefit of the doubt (he would retire a month early); and he guessed Scout camp was impossible.

He couldn’t believe it when his dad declined to take over milking the cow! Mom was incredulous that dad couldn’t see the impossibility of it all. Dad just said, “Trust me, Sherri. I milked cows all my life—with broken arms, legs, ribs—you name it. He can do it. Let him know you depend on him. Don’t buy milk if he can’t get it all at first. Show him you are grateful for what he does get and let him know that the family will make do with what he provides.”

Nobody said a word at the table the first day he milked the cow—but there was noticeably a lack of tall glasses of milk. It took three days and a very uncomfortable cow before David realized his dad meant business. It really was going to be up to him! Within a week, a very proud son began bringing in buckets foaming to the brim with milk. The satisfaction of seeing the family drink with gusto rewarded him daily.

Encouraged by that success—and the scarcity of pizzas and milk shakes—David became proficient once more at eating. He also began practicing writing and was able to complete his term papers legibly. By the time Scout camp came, David felt invincible. He not only went, but single-handedly (literally) garnered six merit badges.

It was a great experience to watch David learn there was greatness in himself. We knew he had it in him, but he didn’t. Giving him the opportunity to find out while staying close by to offer support was hard at first, but the results were worth it. Since then, this knowledge about himself has encouraged him many times to persist when things got tough and he was tempted to give up. His loyalty and good-natured attitude about taking responsibility around the home has increased a hundredfold.

We were asked recently what we do to discipline our children. We have to say that we don’t rely on any kind of a method exactly. Mostly we just let our children know we love them, and our efforts to help them discipline themselves are an expression of our love. Whatever we do is usually spontaneous but always in accordance with correct principles as we understand them. Some are only understood after the fact—when, after praying for help and receiving impressions to do one thing or another, we saw afterwards that we had done the right thing. On the other hand, we have acted hastily, at times too emotionally charged to temper our actions by prayer. Evaluation helped us to regroup and try again.

We remember one experience when we made the right choices and learned of the capacity of teens to sense fair play. It was Carolyn’s turn to do the dishes, and expecting her to fulfill her responsibility, we left together for an evening out. When we returned, the dishes were still in the sink and Carolyn was sound asleep. It was 11:00 P.M. After some discussion, we decided to get Carolyn up and ask her to do the dishes. Ron sent Sherri to bed, then moved on to Carolyn’s room.

Carolyn couldn’t believe her dad would actually get her out of bed to do dishes in the middle of the night. But ignoring her groggy resistance and talking quietly and gently, her father informed her the dishes must be done before she went back to bed—and what’s more, because she had not kept her promise to do them, maybe she could just wash every dish in the house.

Tears sprang to Carolyn’s eyes, and she started to cry. As she plunged her hands into the dishwater, she murmured angry words under her breath that grew angrier with each dish. Her dad stayed up the whole time with her humming, reading the paper, sweeping up a little—and helping with a dish or two toward the end.

Late into the night when the kitchen was clean, he put his arm around her and drew her to the table. Tenderly, he looked at her and thanked her for the beautiful job she had done. Then he said, “Carolyn, I know how angry I made you tonight. Well, your mother and I left you with your word that you would wash those dishes. They were your responsibility, and yet you took no thought of how your mother would feel when she had to face your dirty dishes before she could begin breakfast in the morning. She would have had not only her jobs in the morning—but yours too. Carolyn, you are too precious and too special for me to allow you to behave in such a way. I want more for you than that. I want you to know the feeling of accomplishment when you have carried your load, done your share, and understood what others will feel about you when you don’t.”

Carolyn crumpled into her father’s arms. She said of the occasion later, “I never loved my father more than I did that night!”

What a delight she has been to us since then! When it came time to learn how to drive, she never gave us cause to worry about her. When she began dating, she listened to counsel and was chaste in her relationships with young men. Money given to her for post-high-school education was spent with utmost care. The consideration she gives in the home for her mother’s welfare—jumping up to help with a meal, making bread without being asked, cleaning out the cupboards when needed—is sometimes overwhelming. And her loyalty to her dad has created a bond between them that is a source of joy for all who know them.

On another occasion we learned how well teens can govern themselves—once taught correct principles. We also learned that teens need the chance to reveal themselves to themselves while at home where principles can be tested and evaluated with support from those who love them.

We have an electric car. It didn’t cost a lot, but it runs and saves considerably on gas. Incredibly easy to drive—requiring only a turn of the key and stepping on the accelerator—it begs to be used. David and Steven used to give in to the enticement and from time to time drove it around our big yard though told explicitly never to touch it. The moment of truth came, however, when they accidently dented the fender.

When we brought them in, we asked if they remembered the rule concerning the car. They remembered. We reminded them about Joseph Smith’s ability to teach correct principles and then let the people govern themselves. They remembered that too. We asked them who they thought should govern them. Someone has to. It will either be us, or society, or themselves.

Looking at it that way caused them some serious reflection. When asked what action should be taken, their answer was, “We are old enough to govern ourselves. Put the key in plain sight—leave it in the ignition—leave for a week. No matter what, we will never touch it again unless you give us permission.”

From that day forward, the car sat in the garage with the key in the ignition as our expression of faith in them. It was never touched again.

One of the approaches we use in teaching our children correct principles is to let them read from the scriptures the principle we’re trying to impress on them. If we constantly place the correct principles before them, they will have a better than average basis by which to gauge their behavior when put under fire. In this context, it has been gratifying to hear them quote with earnestness the scripture from Deuteronomy 5:27 [Deut. 5:27], “Speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it.”

We let them know that one way the Lord speaks to us is through the prophet. When the prophet says “do it,” we will hear it and do it! There is no other alternative. This year we have all filled containers with white paint and painted our fences. David and Steven are required to keep the lawn mowed, and we’ve all done our share of weeding, pruning, raking, and cleaning. Our children have seen us go to the temple, and each child has a journal and a book of remembrance that he is expected to keep up to date.

The rewards of following the prophet’s counsel are sometimes not immediately apparent, but time will reveal them. How much enjoyment and instruction will our youngest, for example, find in an entry he made in his journal at age eight:

Wednesday, October 3, 1979. I went to Jimascixs. I was scerd but know I cod not cri. Now I cept it and I felt glad.” He used to hate showers, but he recently wrote: “last nit I took a thawr and I dint haft to.”

Both Kathy and Carolyn thank us over and over again that we insisted they follow the prophet’s admonition not to date before sixteen. “Whew,” they’ve said. “We really could have gotten into some dumb situations if we had gone out before then. By the time we turned sixteen we sure had a lot better sense.” Kathy has now married in the temple and just gave birth to her first daughter.

Another way the Lord speaks to us is through the scriptures. Matthew 5:14–16 [Matt. 5:14–16] has let our children know that no one should have to ask if they are Latter-day Saints. It should show. “Let your light so shine that [others] may see your good works.” That scripture helped us convince our sons to bypass the rock-star posters they wanted to put on their walls in exchange for posters of Book of Mormon prophets. A bedspread of mock-leopard skin and a reproduction of an Aztec calendar added a special touch to their room, we thought, but the boys weren’t quite sure. What if their friends thought it was “dumb”? They didn’t. In fact, they went home asking for the same in their rooms.

1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 [1 Thes. 5:21–22] has strengthened our daughters’ resolve to avoid dating young men of questionable character. Avoiding even the appearance of evil has given them courage to walk out of an indecent movie and ask to be taken home.

2 Timothy 1:7 [2 Tim. 1:7] has helped our teens overcome the fear of recitals, important tests at school, and applying for a job. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Each of them understands that he has the power to direct his life, to rise above excuses and mistakes and see himself for who and what he is—a person who can do it.

When Carolyn was fifteen and Kathy was sixteen, for example, we had them handle the household budget for the summer. They were to pay utilities, buy the food, plan the menus, feed us three meals a day, and see that other necessities were met. What a summer! We found them reminding us to keep the door closed so the air conditioner wouldn’t be required to cool the entire outdoors. They struggled when there was too much month at the end of the money, and burst into tears when the dessert they had made was sampled early.

Our children have also learned to hear the word of the Lord through their parents and to call upon the priesthood in time of need. David was playing with an explosive a few months ago when it exploded, damaging his hand severely. The doctor diagnosed surgery and told David his hand would be scarred irreparably. David asked his father for a blessing. Calling on our home teacher, Wayne Whitlock, to assist him, Ron blessed David through inspiration that his hand would heal leaving no scar. The next day when the doctor removed the bandages to prepare for surgery, the burned tendons had begun to heal on their own. Within a week David’s hand was completely healed with no scar.

Although David wasn’t directly told not to play with explosives because the occasion had never arisen, he knows now never to touch them again, for he respects the gravity of such an act. He also knows that if he had sought his parents’ counsel he would have been spared the pain and trauma of almost losing his hand.

We make sure our children see us as a marriage unit. They know, for example, that they live in our home and use our car. We make the rules governing the home and the use of the car. We explain that some day they will have their own possessions. They won’t have to account to us for what they do with their belongings—only what they do with ours. We do not believe in sharing equal time when there is a choice between playing music or watching TV. They choose what to do as long as it fits into the bounds the Lord (and we) set.

This encourages the children to search for ways to buy things they want for themselves. Kathy took many things into her marriage that would make a home comfortable, including lovely paintings and wall hangings, several pieces of furniture she had refinished herself, and a large trousseau. Carolyn and Connie are following in her footsteps. Money they earn has gone into quality items for the future. David and Steven are constantly coming up with new business ventures to make money. They have purchased their own bikes and sports equipment. They have a savings account for their missions and are constantly trying to come up with ways to add money to it.

We have taught our teenagers that the Lord will speak directly to them through the Holy Ghost. We have tried to help them build the inner strength and faith to continually call on the Lord for guidance by not providing every answer for them. When Carolyn wanted to know whether to stay home or go away to school we encouraged her to make her tentative decision and pray about it. We told her that we knew she had the capacity to learn the will of the Lord through fasting and praying and that we would stand behind her decision. When Kathy decided to get married and asked us what she should do, we explained that she must consider her own conclusion carefully and then continue to pray about it. Although she was aware of our feelings about the proposal of marriage, we knew that if difficulties ever arose, she would find strength by remembering she had received assurance she was doing the right thing.

A study done recently on teenagers who were caught lying, cheating, and stealing revealed two factors consistent in their lives: (1) they had an abundance of unstructured free time; (2) they lacked communication with their parents. (See John B. Reid, et al., University of Arizona: Educational Psychology Department, 1980.)

One way we have found to eliminate the communication problem is to have monthly interviews with each child. In Ron’s interviews he asks such questions as “Is there anything you feel you’d like to tell me that I should know about?” “Do you feel good about the past month? Is there anything you would do differently?”

Being near them, or coming in physical contact with them—and then keeping the touch warm and loving—promotes a climate that makes it difficult for them to keep something back that should be told. Since he has reserved this time for them, and they know he will not criticize them, they are able to open up to him, evaluate their past performance, and plan how to correct it in the future.

On unstructured free time, we have been relentless. We bought a cow with a calf for the boys to care for, and Ron helped the boys build a rabbit pen so they could raise rabbits. David sells some of the cow’s milk and cream if there is any left over when the family is through. He also is active in sports and plays the bass in the school orchestra. He takes piano lessons and is expected to practice, do his chores, and clean his room. Steven takes gymnastic lessons twice a week, is learning to play the piano and violin, and is expected to practice daily, clean his room, and feed the calf, dog, and rabbits. All three girls play the piano and a stringed instrument. They make bread once a week, are responsible for the entire Sunday meals—menu, shopping, and cleanup. All help keep the house and yard clean.

Such a life-style could get hectic and seem over-programmed. Certainly, each family must find their own approach to dealing with unstructured time, and some may find our approach too structured for them. But our family has found that structured activities can be rewarding if approached in the right spirit. For example, we have organized ourselves into a family orchestra. Our most memorable experience was to play before an elderly group who hadn’t received such a visit in years. When our children saw the tears roll down their cheeks and felt their hugs, they were touched so deeply that they vowed they would never let their own grandparents go without companionship—and they haven’t. And that was the purpose for that activity—to provide the family with these kinds of heart-touching, unifying experiences.

If we were to list what we have learned in teaching our teenagers self-discipline, it would be the following. Though the list may not be complete, it does contain some principles we have found valuable in raising our children. Other families may have discovered other, perhaps even different principles.

1. Children need to assume some responsibilities that increase as they get older.

2. Parameters need to be set so that ideas and feelings can be tested under controlled conditions.

3. Teens need an authority figure to rely on, especially when faced with pressure from their peer group.

4. Peer interaction reaches its highest for most teenagers when they reach about fifteen years old. That’s the most important time to stay close to them.

5. Open expressions of love—a touch, a handslap, wrestling—are necessary during the early teen years.

6. Mother and father must agree on questions of religion, hours, schooling, dating, discipline, and other issues of principle.

7. A teen must feel that others believe he is a worthwhile person.

8. Achievement builds teenagers’ self-concept, so they need to be encouraged to achieve at something visible.

9. They need confidence that they are competent and useful, that they are important somewhere, that they can do what is expected of them.

10. Some role-playing is necessary. Teenagers need to practice planning and preparing meals, etc.—with time to evaluate how they did.

11. They need an opportunity to talk out their feelings and ask questions without feeling threatened in doing so.

12. They need goals to work toward.

13. They identify with groups. That’s why they need a close, achieving family to identify with. If they can’t feel good about their own family, they will look for another group to identify with.

14. Consistency is very important. Neglecting to follow through on limits teaches teenagers that authority can be challenged. They then tend to push limits because they want the security of knowing at which point the parent will help them gain control. Parental persistence in seeing that they keep rules is extremely important.

15. Teens need to feel that their parents will defend and protect them.

16. Parents need to have a sense of humor and know how to have fun. Teens need to learn how to laugh at themselves and how to enjoy life.

17. Teenagers need new experiences. If parents don’t provide them, they will.

18. Teens need to know more what you are for than what you are against.

We like to define discipline as training that corrects and perfects. Synonyms for discipline are education and self-control. By examining our relationships with our teenagers and making sure those relationships are based on correct principles, we may eventually be rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing them arrive at the state of independence where they accept responsibility for their own actions.

Kathy’s last year at home with us was one of the sweetest experiences we can remember. She went out of her way to be thoughtful and obedient. One day mother asked her what influenced her to try so hard. Her eyes filled with tears and she said, “I’ve tried all this year to live the very best I know how, to repay you in a small way for all you have meant to me all of these years. I know you and dad love me, and I would do anything in return.”

What more can a parent want!

[photos] Sculpture by Ed Spears; photography by Jon Lockwood

Ronald Zirker, a school-psychologist, and his wife, Sherri, teach the Sunday School Family Relations class in their Mesa, Arizona, ward; they are parents of five children.