Why Self Discipline Is Over Rated by Alfie Kohn

Why Self Discipline Is Over Rated by Alfie Kohn



It’s not just that self-control isn’t always good; it’s that a lack of self-control isn’t always bad because it may “provide the basis for spontaneity, flexibility, expressions of interpersonal warmth, openness to experience, and creative recognitions.” So what does it say about our society that “the idea of self-control is generally praised” even though it may sometimes be “maladaptive and spoil the experience and savorings of life”?

Learning, after all, depends not on what students do so much as on how they regard and construe what they do.

Secure, healthy people can be playful, flexible, open to new experiences and self-discovery, deriving satisfaction from the process rather than always focused on the product. An extremely self-disciplined student, by contrast, may see reading or problem-solving purely as a means to the end of a good test score or a high grade.

A detailed review of research concerning all sorts of attempts to suppress feelings and behaviors concludes that the results often include “negative affect (discomfort or distress) [and] cognitive disruption (including distractibility and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the proscribed behavior).” [Brings to mind religious extremist and their attitudes towards sex.]

What counts is the capacity to choose whether and when to persevere, to control oneself, to follow the rules – rather than the simple tendency to do these things in every situation. This, rather than self-discipline or self-control per se, is what children would benefit from developing.

On the one hand, a rule or standard can be swallowed whole, or “introjected,” so that it controls children from the inside: “Behaviors are performed because one ‘should’ do them, or because not doing so might engender anxiety, guilt, or loss of esteem.” On the other hand, internalization can take place more authentically, so the behavior is experienced as “volitional or self-determined.” It’s been fully integrated into one’s value structure and feels chosen.

Thus, a student may study either because she knows she’s supposed to (and will feel lousy about herself if she doesn’t), or because she understands the benefits of doing so and wants to follow through even if it’s not always pleasurable. This basic distinction has proved relevant to academics, sports, romantic love, generosity, political involvement, and religion – with research in each case demonstrating that the latter kind of internalization leads to better outcomes than the former.

Dutiful students may be suffering from what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney famously called the “tyranny of the should” -- to the point that they no longer know what they really want, or who they really are.

High school is just preparation for college, and college consists of collecting credentials for whatever comes next. Nothing has any value, or provides any gratification, in itself. These students...remind us just how mixed the blessing of self-discipline can be.

It’s because our preferences are regarded as unworthy, our desires as shameful, that we must strive to overcome them. Taken to its logical conclusion, human life is a constant struggle to stifle and transcend ourselves.

...if they’re nevertheless engaged in ensuring that children internalize our values – in effect, by installing a policeman inside each child – then they ought to admit that this isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own values, and it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of helping them to become independent thinkers.

...older people have been denouncing youthful slackers and “modern times” for centuries...

...self-discipline plays a critical role in a conservative worldview.[28] Obedience to authority is what produces self-discipline,[29] and self-discipline, in turn, is required for achievement. Its absence is seen as a sign of self-indulgence and therefore of moral weakness...

...we assume that self-control is just a feature that a person might possess, even though it’s probably more accurate to think of it as “a situational concept, not an individual trait” given that “an individual will display different degrees of self-control in different situations.”

[whoa] If the question is: “How can we get them to raise their hands and wait to be called on rather than blurting out the answer?”, then the question isn’t: “Why does the teacher ask most of the questions in here – and unilaterally decide who gets to speak, and when?”

“What’s the best way to teach kids self-discipline so they’ll do their work?”, then the question isn’t: “Are these assignments, which feel like ‘work,’[35] really worth doing? Do they promote deep thinking and excitement about learning, or are they just about memorizing facts and practicing skills by rote?” [ummm...]

to identify a lack of self-discipline as the problem is to focus our efforts on making children conform to a status quo that is left unexamined and is unlikely to change