We live in a society amongst hundreds of thousands or even millions of other people. Behavioural laws have developed in order to ensure that our society runs smoothly. Without these laws, social interaction would become increasingly dangerous. The breakdown of these social laws is explored in many apocalyptic movies and series. A popular modern phenomenon is the zombie apocalypse genre which explores how the breakdown of social laws makes life increasingly dangerous for the survivors who have to contend violently with other humans jostling for dwindling resources.
(Incidentally to this, I suppose I should also mention that the zombie apocalypse genre also involves brain-eating zombies)..

I’ve seen some genre fans stating that they would really enjoy living through a zombie apocalypse. I do not believe that this would prove to be true in actuality. Their enjoyment factor would most likely drop considerably after surviving the first life-or-death encounter. It is a popular modern notion that to operate without laws and rules is preferable to operating under a set of accepted laws.

This is usually fine for those that like the idea of operating outside of accepted laws to their own benefit, until they find themselves the victim of someone operating outside of the selfsame laws.

Discipline of some form or other is required in order to ensure that the social laws and framework is respected. For most people, this discipline is stimulated by the threat of punishment doled out by higher authorities like the police. The majority of people are motivated to adhere to laws under threat of punishment. This is what I call external discipline.

It is essentially the rule of fear. If someone who is motivated by external discipline were assured that they would be able to break the law to their personal benefit with absolutely no chance of any subsequent punishment, they would most likely break the law. A typical example of this is a driver on the road who consciously and consistently disregards the speed limits when there is no visible speed enforcement.

Can external discipline be taught? Quite easily, in fact. It is taught by exposing someone or something to a systematic series of punishments whenever they break known laws and rewards for following laws. The key to effectively teaching external discipline is consistency in punishment and reward.

Self-discipline (or internal discipline) is a much rarer form of discipline where the threat of external punishment is no longer the motivating factor for obedience. People who apply self-discipline have themselves become the higher authority in control of their behaviour.
They are not ruled by fear. Self-disciplined people do not change their behaviour patterns if the threat of external punishment is removed. Conversely, they may not even change their behaviour under threat of external punishment. They are self-governed. They follow their accepted law internally.

Think of the great warriors and leaders of the past who operated under a disciplined internal code and who were unaffected by external factors such as death, danger, bribes or human coercion. These were self-disciplined people.

One can see that levels of self-discipline are quite low in today’s world by the sheer numbers of people who do not care for their own bodies by ensuring that they get sufficient exercise and good nutrition. Facebook is full of status updates by people who complain that they don’t have the discipline to get themselves to the gym regularly. Personal fitness trackers, fitness groups and personal trainers are more popular than ever because most people know of no other way to assert discipline over themselves other than by having an external authority to which they can be accountable.

Can self discipline be taught?

It can, but it is hard to teach. Essentially it must be encouraged, rather than enforced.

It involves teaching someone that they are ultimately in charge of their own actions and that they have a responsibility to themselves and others.

They must be taught that they must care personally for everyone and everything within the sphere of their influence.

Can self-discipline be taught under threat of punishment?
Absolutely not.

Self discipline can only be taught by allowing the student freedom to make an informed decision as to the course of their actions. The student must be empowered to understand the part that they play in the world and the personal power that they wield (for good or evil). And ultimately, the teacher must concede that whether the student accepts the mantle of responsibility and self-discipline or not is their own choice.

This is the only way to teach self-discipline that I am aware of. Self-discipline is a personal choice and cannot be coerced.

You can certainly make someone externally disciplined and you can certainly make someone afraid of you but you cannot make someone self-disciplined and you cannot make someone respect you.

What about Martial Arts Training?

In our experience running a martial arts school, we have often received queries from parents of children of various ages who wish their children to learn self-discipline. I believe that their hope is that the discipline intrinsic to the practice of martial arts may help to teach their children self-discipline.

At the risk of shooting myself in the foot I would like to address this query here. I say at the risk of shooting myself in the foot, because on some level, our school has to function as a financial entity and relies on new students to generate income. Turning any potential new students away is not in our financial best interests but I believe that in some cases it is necessary because exposing someone to the level of training required in our system against their will is counter-productive.

I believe that two common misconceptions drive these queries.

  1. The first misconception is that draconian external discipline can produce self-disciplined people. As discussed before, this is not true. If the person already has self-discipline in place and wants to participate in the activity, they may be able to develop their own self-discipline levels through participation. If they have no self-discipline and do not desire to participate, participation will only give them a hatred for the activity.
  2. The second misconception is that all martial arts schools are run like military training camps where instructors strut around whipping students into shape. This is perhaps true for a few but certainly not for most. In most cases, instructors act more as facilitators rather than military officers. Students are expected to really want to be participants in the training process.

Whether or not to accept a new student into our school is always decided on a case-by-case basis. As a bare minimum, a potential student must really want to be a practicing martial artist. If this is the case and they have little to no self-discipline, I know that their basic desire to train may eventually overcome their lack of self-discipline. This may allow them to develop self-discipline.

If the student does not really want to be a practicing martial artist and they have no self-discipline, forget about it. It is not going to happen and is a waste of the parent’s and the child’s time.

My advice in this case will certainly not be popular. It is two-fold.

Firstly, it is not likely that self discipline will develop in children if their parents are not self-disciplined themselves. If you want your kids to be self-disciplined, you need to model this behaviour to them effectively. Don’t expect them to behave like well-oiled little machines while you sit around on the couch. I can hear the moaning and groaning from here. Yes! This probably means you should get up out of your seat and start following a structured exercise program. Physical self-discipline is the starting point for developing all other forms of self-discipline.

Secondly, don’t make your child’s lack of self-discipline someone else’s problem. Don’t try to blame the school, the environment or society at large and don’t expect someone else to be able to magically give them what you did not. Acknowledge the way things are and take responsibility for them. Find something physical that your child really wants to do. This may assist them in developing the self-discipline that they require in order to excel in life. Encourage them to try any and every form of physical activity.

Be engaged with them. Don’t parcel them off on to someone else. This may require you to spend more time with them and join in with them as they try new things like bush-walking, adventure racing, skiing, camping etc.

Even if all else fails and your child does not develop self-discipline, at the very least your relationship with them will have significantly improved because of your level of involvement and commitment to their happiness and well-being.

Written by SiXiong Lester Walters, head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia