If there is one thing my dad drilled into his children through both words and deeds, it was the virtue of discipline. In my short time as a father, it is perhaps the thing with which I struggle the most.
Growing up, my dad constantly drilled me and my five siblings on the importance of discipline. He led through example by leaving for work most days before sunrise during the week and then by his hard work around the house on weekends. From him we learned to complete chores diligently and thoroughly, manage our time, treat others with respect, and be aware of ourselves in our posture and language. He would regularly admonish us to stand up straight (which he still does today), to speak clearly and honestly, and to do what was asked of us well. It cannot be said that my siblings and I are or ever have been perfect, nor that my dad is or was a perfect disciplinarian. But I believe it was my dad’s sense of personal discipline that made those lessons all the more impactful.
Discipline is one of those tricky words that seems to conjure up images of nuns rapping students knuckles with a ruler or forms of “corporal punishment.” Perhaps in more recent times “discipline” may be used in connection with healthy eating habits or regular exercise. But, like those healthy eating habits, discipline itself can be an elusive goal because of reluctance, hesitation, or simply naivety about what exactly it entails. Parents may find discipline especially elusive with regards to their children, but even more dangerously, they may find it lacking in themselves.
Disciplining children can be a supreme challenge for any parent. Establishing boundaries, setting consistent rules, utilizing appropriate punishments, and following-through each-and-every time is paramount. This is also why it can be so difficult for parents, physically, mentally, and emotionally. A Pew Research Center study recently found that only 51 percent of all mothers and 39 percent of all fathers think they are doing a good job raising their children. Every child, every parent, and every relationship between them is different. However, discipline must begin with the parents for it to be effective with children. Unfortunately, it seems as though not enough of us parents are as disciplined as we should be.
The English word “discipline” is rooted in the Latin verb meaning “to learn” and the Latin term for “student.” This is where we get the word “disciple” which means “a follower.” This makes sense. A student is one who learns, usually by following the lead of a teacher. Simple enough, right? But that student does not automatically learn from the teacher. In the first place, the student must have a desire and ability to learn. In addition, a student must do the work necessary to learn by reading, listening, or any other sort of activity ordered toward that end. On the other hand, a good teacher is one who has a mastery of a subject which he or she wants to share and a plan to implement the sharing of that subject with the students; there is a regimen to follow. In other words, the teacher is disciplined. The teacher, though, did not start out as a good teacher just because. It takes time and experience for a good teacher to become a good teacher. The teacher first had to be a “discipula,” a student.
What’s the connection with parenting? Well, the old saying “You can’t give what you don’t have” is true in so many facets of life, parenting is no exception. Discipline requires discipline. We cannot model discipleship unless we are first disciples ourselves. If you want your children to eat their veggies, you had better eat yours without complaint. Do your children spend more time staring at screens than you would like? Consider how much they see you on your smartphone, tablet, or watching TV. Want your kids to respect you? Consider how much respect you show towards your wife, your boss, or that person who just cut you off in traffic. The examples are endless. Just as the school teacher must master a subject in order to teach it, so a father must master himself in order to teach his children how to master themselves. What is “discipline” if not self-mastery?
If you think you could work on your own discipline now would be a great time to start the Exodus 90 program. Even if you consider yourself to be well-disciplined, going through the 90 regimen will strengthen your foundation, because temptation can, and will, attack without warning. Consider how Jesus’ own disciples lacked the discipline to stay awake and pray with him during his sorrowful Passion in the garden at Gethsemane.
God wants us to learn more about His love, so we must be good students – good disciples. We must get to know Our Father intimately if we are to follow His example of fatherhood. But that requires the discipline to learn from God through the study of His Word and the catechism, and ultimately through prayer.