Inner Discipline and the Development of Real Will

by Nancy Monson

There is a lot of debate over how much children should be directed in their development and learning, and how much they should be allowed freedom of choice. Recently I have been reading about "free" schools where children are given freedom to do as they choose, since they know what is best for them. Although I believe that children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, and they need to have their rights honored, they do need structure and discipline if they are going to develop certain capacities, one of those being real Will.
Discipline: "training that develops self control, character or orderliness." (Webster) Let's add: what is absolutely necessary in learning to focus, to master any skill or knowledge, to accomplish goals and to make decisions and choices towards what may be difficult or involve sacrifice, but necessary.

ehind every great achievement, there was a parent or teacher that helped a person develop the qualities and inner discipline required in learning to work. This is true of sports, science, the arts, or public life. As a child I used to read biographies of famous people when they were young. I remember that each one of them learned discipline towards their lives, whether it be caring for siblings, working in the house, athletics or even having to work for money at a young age.

As a teacher what I tend to observe is parents who do too much for their children and don't look enough to the value of discipline. Children often get the parents to do things for them, just because the parents will, or don't want to wait the extra time it takes, or deal with arguments. I try and help parents remember how good it feels to be independent, to feel capable, to learn, to develop the strength and confidence that comes with struggling and mastering tasks. But what else are we helping children to develop when we provide them with opportunities to be disciplined?

How hard is it to do something you don't want to do but that needs to be done? What if that were seen as not only a necessary component of life, but as part of the development of real Will? In work that is difficult to do (something that you lack confidence in, requires more than you feel capable of giving, pushes your limits and stretches your abilities) there is always a struggle between the part of you that wants to do it and the part that doesn't, or feels incapable. This struggle between yes and no is the friction that helps develop Will. The difference between real Will and self Will is that real Will can be used to serve the whole, to make choices and do work that may be difficult for the person but contributes to mankind or the planet. Self will is self-serving and self centered, it's about getting what you want how you want it. There are many people who have struggled and sacrificed to develop their talents, but what a great difference it is when that work goes to serving instead of to the acquisition of fame and wealth. Real Will is connected with service and love.

I read Jane Goodall's autobiography, "Reason for Hope." With the support she received from her family and the late Dr. Louis Leaky, she was able to establish a goal for her life that she has been dedicated to. It has taken a lot of Will for her to be persistent in her work. It is a book worth reading for all parents and educators.
So, back to our children. If children don't learn to discipline themselves, these capacities of inner strength, Will and the understanding of the true necessity of struggle, will go uncultivated. Of course, there is a big difference in how discipline is taught!

Starting at a young age, children need to do whatever it is that they are capable of: putting their cups in the sink, picking up their toys, putting on their clothes, doing simple chores. Maria Montessori always observed how much children love to work and do things to contribute. If children see us working with joy and ease, part of the natural rhythm of living, they naturally join in. If we make chores and work dull and burdensome, so will they. You will have constant struggles on your hands. Giving to the household has to begin very young. Everyone feels good about what they have to contribute. It is an essential ingredient of self-esteem: I belong, I am valued, my contribution is needed.

When they get older, observing what they are drawn to and providing opportunities to master something is a key component in inner discipline. It can be a sport, a musical instrument, something they love to learn about, caring for animals, art, dance. Finding the right coach or teacher is crucial, as well as being creative about ways to help the child stay interested when difficulties arise. There will always be times the child might want to give up: it's hard, they would rather do something else, it's not fun. Parents need to be actively involved if the child is to develop in this arena. When I was young I loved sports, but when I lost confidence, I quit. Without someone to support, encourage and help me through those times, I couldn't find that strength on my own. Children need to have things that are hard in their lives because it puts them into the struggle of yes and no and gives them the experience of learning to use more of what often lies untouched. It is fine to push children if it is done in the right way, and the child has the right balance of play, work, time alone, time with friends in his life.

Who do you admire? Who do you know that has inner discipline towards a vision or goals? Someone who can do what needs to be done with joy and life? Children need support in developing inner discipline, but once it is there, it can be something permanent that can be applied to all areas of life.


© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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