Self-Discipline is a Muscle
Years ago, I decided that I was going to compete in an "adventure race" called Tough Mudder. A bunch of my friends and I joined a gym with the express purpose of training for this event, and let me tell you, it was brutal. Not the event itself, though it was definitely challenging, but the training! Showing up at the gym every day before work (sometimes at 5AM), lifting heavy things, jumping on top of boxes, and running around a track until I felt like I was going to throw up. Over and over and over again for months. And mostly, I hated it. But in the end, when I crossed the finish line of my Tough Mudder race, arm in arm with my friends, it was one of the greatest triumphs I ever experienced.
The idea that kids are capable of that level of self-discipline is shocking to people, and many flat-out do not believe it. If you leave them to their own devices, won't kids watch TV and gorge on junk food until they pass out? No. To be honest, the only kids I've ever seen behave this way are the ones who have been denied the freedom of choice and, when they are given their first taste of independence, go a little crazy. But after a few days of feeling sick and isolated they frequently decide to make a different choice.
A good friend of mine (who you can hear on this episode of the AVS podcast) was not allowed to play video games at home. His mom forbade it until, one Christmas, she changed her mind. She bought him and his brother an X-Box and told them they could play to their heart's content. So they did. They played and played and played for about 48 hours straight, forgoing sleep and nutrition and all else. They gorged themselves on video games until they emerged, blinking, into the sunlight and decided they had had enough. They were literally sick of gaming. And so they diversified their interests, still returning to video games off and on, but never to the same extent they did before. They were flexing their self-discipline muscles.
Nutrition, exercise, productivity, communication, and healthy boundaries are all aspects of life that are learned. And while it is possible for them to be assimilated through lesson plans and classrooms, they are best integrated through real life experiences. Often, we learn these lessons by making mistakes, the kind that we as parents cringe when we see our children making (like gaming for 48 hours straight). But if we can take a breath and trust our kids, we'll see that all such explorations are them strengthening those all-important muscles and, after a few months, we'll begin to see them grow.