It’s Not All Mary Poppins

DNA is [not quite] all

I read an article some while back that was essentially arguing that much of our parenting is for naught, because children’s characters are hard-wired into their DNA. They are who they are, and nothing we do will change that much.

Of course, I rear up in resistance to that idea.

Sort of. In fact, I do think they come with their little characters pretty much intact. They are not ‘blank slates’; rather, they are a mystery which is gradually revealed, a basic form which is refined as the years go by.

I believe, however, that parents have a huge role to play, and that very article provides the key. While just about every character trait — kindness, propensity to anger, stubbornness, generosity, and many, many more — all do seem to be pretty much genetically-dictated, there was one trait that was not. There was one trait that was very strongly influenced by nurture, by family. And that one trait makes all the difference.

The trait is self-discipline.


Now, self-discipline is in some disrepute in this largely adolescent culture of ours. It’s associated with being a boring, dull nay-sayer. Who wants dreary, dull, no-no-no self-discipline?

People who know it’s self-discipline which separates the people who consistenty wonder “why do these things keep happening to meeee?” from those who feel largely in control of their life, that’s who.

We are notoriously poor at teaching self-discipline to our children. We tend to see it as the grinding down of a child’s spirit, the steady encroachment on their personality, the ceaseless winnowing away of who they are into who they should be. It is not.

Self-discipline acknowledges who a child is, all their flaws and their potential. Self-discipline gives the child the tools and abilities to overcome (or work around) their weaknesses and allows them to glory in their strengths.

Self-discipline starts — a parent encourages its development — when you tell your two-year-old, “You may be angry, but you may not hit mama.” And then, when they rear back to take a second swipe, you grab that offending hand and repeat. “You may be angry, but you may NOT hit.” When you tell that same child that if he/she chooses to be awake in the middle of the night, they may NOT keep the rest of the family awake.

Self-discipline grows some more when a parent holds back from helping a child who is experiencing frustration when they can’t tie their shoes. “You can do it. I’m going to the bathroom right now. If you keep trying, I’ll help you when I get back — but I bet you’ll have it all done by the time I’m back!”

In each of these instances, the child will probably be unhappy with you. If your goal as a parent is to keep your child happy, you will be very poor at this. If your goal as a parent is to raise an adult who has the skills and abilities to be confident and competant to manage their own life, you will persevere. Because your vision is on the long-term goal, not the current hiccup. (No matter how loud and outraged that hiccup may be in this moment.)

Self-discipline is evidenced when a tot stomps their feet and says, “I’m MAD at you!!!” but doesn’t scream or hit; when a child decides for themselves to finish a necessary task rather than go out with their friends; when your teen saves her own money for a project of her own design; when your young adult stays sober because he’s chosen to be the designated driver when he goes clubbing with his friends.

We all have to learn to consider others, to rein in our nastier impulses, to persevere in a task in order to succeed — and generally, these are not our natural inclinations. Generally, these skills do not come easily.

Ironically, if you’re willing to let your child suffer unhappiness as a necessary part of learning all these things, if you’re willing to let your child be frustrated and exasperated as a result of their own actions and decisions — you will end up with a child who is, overall, happier than the child who was always protected from the bumps and bruises of life.

Self-discipline is the way to go. Because being a grown-up, a real, full, card-carrying, non-apologetic grown-up, is a good thing. I would rather be an uncool adult, confidently in control of myself and my responses to the happenings of my life, than a perma-adolescent, knowing all the ins and outs of the “right” clothing, music, cars and gadgets, but buffeted, outraged and confused by the world around me.

And that’s what I want for my kids, too.

So, their DNA may present you with the essential outline of the child. DNA predisposes you to a quick temper. Self-discipline holds the anger in check and/or expresses it constructively. Self-discipline fills in the gaps, enriches the strengths, mutes the flaws, finds a way to cope with weaknesses. Creates full, happy, empowered, considerate adults who continually seek to grow and develop into a better, fuller, more complete version of themselves.

It’s a lifelong process, but it’s the only way I’d want to live.

February 29, 2008 Posted by | behavioural stuff, parenting, peer pressure | 11 Comments