Making Self Discipline A Habit

About a year ago, our family went through a phase of watching “So You Think You Can Dance”. As a former dancer, I appreciated the work the performers put into it, if not the hype if the show itself. After watching a particularly amazing young man perform, we listened to his tale, in which he confided that although he had been dancing since the age of 4, he owed all the credit to his mother, who had forced him to go to class. “I’m pretty sure I cried every day that I went to class until I was about 10”, he confided with a shy smile. How often was class? 5 days a week.

We all laughed at this story, but inwardly I was a little horrified. I tried to picture myself forcing my crying child out of the door to their lesson, 5 days a week for 6 years straight, and felt slightly nauseous at the image. Though my boys don’t have a great passion for dancing (to my mild disappointment), they have both played instruments for a few years now, and seem to genuinely enjoy it. And, like most kids I know, they often dread practicing, even though they reap the rewards through the satisfaction of creating enjoyable entertainment. Even with one lesson a week, and an expectation of 20 minutes a day of practicing, we struggle with how to support them in the discipline necessary to achieve their worthy goal.

As unschoolers, we believe in interest leading the way for education and life learning. The difficulty is that with something like music, (or sports, gymnastics, martial arts, etc), a child may have a genuine interest, may in fact gain a great deal of satisfaction from the hobby, and yet have a natural reluctance to practice. It is a pattern I’m all too sympathetic with. I began playing guitar about 14 years ago, and I love it. Once I hit a certain level, however, I was so resistant to practice and growth that I never made it past that wall. The same process has occurred for banjo and piano, two other instruments I have taken up over the years. Although I often long to play, and list music as one of my great joys in life, I will do almost anything else before forcing myself to sit down and practice. Even though I know the reward will be great, making myself doing it feels like lifting a heavy weight off my chest.

I have often marveled at the power of this human pattern ( at least I like to think most humans experience it). I suppose it is essentially inertia- we are profoundly reluctant to change to any new activity, especially if that activity feels like work that can be avoided. Many adults struggle with it, particularly in their efforts to improve their diet or fitness level. So I can understand when my kids groan about putting their exciting fantasy novel down to practice scales or a new song. But, I also secretly wish that my parents had been more adamant about getting me to stick with music. Next to raising children, making music is one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had in life- indeed I feel it is one of the greatest activities humans have come up with in general (and one of the most peaceful). So naturally, I feel compelled (obligated?) to do everything I can to help my kids achieve that life long source of joy and satisfaction.

I mentioned adults struggling with the discipline of exercise. A couple of years ago I took a temporary job in a gym. Part of my job was to greet people as they came in and help them feel comfortable. I saw a lot of folks who came in regularly, and a portion of those would almost always look haggard before they even began, worn out from the effort of getting there, from thinking about exercise. I was amazed at how, for some people, making themselves exercise was a monumental task, even though they knew they would feel much better afterward. I have never had a particularly hard time making myself exercise, even though my body may resist it at times. Thinking about what makes the difference, I realized it must be because I grew up doing it.

My parents are both athletic, and regular exercise has always been a natural part of our lives. I believe that when something becomes sufficiently ingrained in your body/mind, it is easier to overcome the mental resistance to the effort it requires. Even though I feel tired sometimes, my body remembers that it will have more energy when I’m done exercising, so I push through. I believe the same process can happen with learning to play an instrument or learning a new dance routine, or any other discipline. When the neural pathways to the reward come well entrenched, the effort it takes to get there reduces overtime.

This is basically the theory of classical conditioning, the iconic Pavlov’s dog, salivating with the chime that means food will come soon. When we trust the reward enough, the activity can move to the “habit” part of our brain, which requires much less energy to access, rather than needing to make a decision each time to engage in the activity. When a task is still relatively new, according to this theory, we have to engage our pre-frontal cortex, the decision making part of our brain, essentially having a conversation with ourselves to decide to do it. Once it has become a habit, we use a lot less energy in the process, since we don’t have to think much about it. The problem is that getting a new activity to become habituated enough to make this transition can be a very uncomfortable feeling.

So, the question becomes, how do we support our kids in persisting until practicing becomes a habit? Of my twins, one is exceedingly verbal and expressive and has created a rather incredible amount of drama around practicing his instrument- the flute. I can’t count the number of evenings we’ve spent, exasperated, watching him sprawl on the floor bemoaning the hardship and horror of practicing. The conversation is nearly always identical. He says something like,

“Uggh…I HATE Practicing!! It’s just. So. BORING!”

In his third year of playing the flute, he has threatened to quit innumerable times, but always changes his mind. Its like the conversation his mind has with itself every night is so loud and rauckous he can’t keep it to himself. I sometimes slip into thinking it would be easier to tell him he just has to practice, no questions, quitting is not an option. Until I remember the story of the boy crying on his way to class for 6 years. As with most things, giving kids a choice and a level of empowerment over their lives is rarely easier, but I believe it results in adults who feel more in control of their lives, and who have an easier time making decisions and taking responsibility for their actions.

And we say something like, “Yes, practicing is boring, but its the only way you can enjoy playing music. Remember how much you liked playing Christmas songs for Mimi, and performing Bohemian Rhapsody at the cookout last week?” And, “If you want to quit, you can. We don’t want to force you. But keep in mind that everything worth doing will take practice, and it will always be hard, etc, etc, etc.”

In terms of how to support our kids through these growing pains and the tough decision of whether to cultivate self-discipline, there are some simple logistics we can help with. Studies have shown that eating regular, well-balanced meals- and some say those high in carbs- makes discipline more easily achieved. While it has been said that consuming carbs and other sugars helps people focus, that is still under debate- but it is accepted that we must eat well and often to achieve our best mental and physical performance.

The same is true of regular exercise. Many studies have shown that regular exercise improves cognitive ability, memory, motivation and will power. As parents we can create daily structures to encourage our kids to maintain healthy diets and fitness, improving their ability to overcome discipline challenges.

We can also help our kids see some of the long terms impacts their hard work might have on their lives. Our family listens to an eclectic mix of music, and any time we see “their” instruments being played in a band they enjoy, we try to learn as much as we can about those musicians. Sometimes we even listen to or read a biography or interview with that person which may include their early years of being a music student. I believe these personal connections help them to continue to decide to pursue their interest.

Sometimes our efforts will come to a dead-end, and a child may decide they are not up to a challenge or just don’t have enough interest. But by providing all the support we can, we can increase their chances of creating a rewarding life long habit.

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