Discipline and self-discipline


So many misunderstand about discipline and yet there are some golden rules:

1. First and foremost, you have to care for and even love those kids [soldiers, women, staff, whatever] and unless you do this, you’ll get no respect.

2. You have to know your stuff. Unless you know your subject and have developed general expertise, you’ll not get that respect and demanding it will buy you zilch.  You also need to show integrity and decency, otherwise they feel uneasy.

3. After that comes “fair, firm and friendly”, the old army adage they teach you in officer training. It applies equally to schools and in companies. All three must be applied equally.

4. Next comes consistency in applying what you do. You don’t get slacker, you don’t tighten up, you keep it the same way the whole time and let those dependent on you develop confidence in the space they occupy. This is what safe environment is about.

5. The third is a sense of humour and a certain elasticity, even the occasional rule-breaking, to show you’re human. There is no place whatsoever for the stern moralist – I can’t think of anything more offputting than that. Unless you can laugh and joke with them, you’re nowhere and they start to take the p—, then rebel, even when you are doing the other things fairly well.

6. Perhaps related to 5 – by all means take the core of what you do seriously but try not to take yourself too seriously to the extent that you find almost everything said to you offensive. Related to this is not to be so far into your ideology that it blinds you to being human.

7. Don’t threaten if you can help it, especially if you will not carry it out to the letter. Better not to say anything. Don’t say, “If you do this, then I’ll do something I can’t possibly carry out and you know me well enough to get around me so what’s the point of me threatening you anyway?” Then, when the kid has you round his/her little finger, don’t suddenly go all disciplinarian and start shouting.

Better not to make threats until the actual moment, then say quietly, “If you do that, there’s no ice-cream and we’re going home.” Then, when he crosses the line, you take him home with no ice-cream, no matter what your soft heart is telling you. You’re doing the child no favours at all to weaken and backtrack and it’s not love to do that.   It’s love to be firm when you have to.

There’s nothing new in what’s written above. Teachers and parents who followed this abounded decades ago and I was lucky enough to have one in my final year of teacher training, when we went out to schools for most of the year. I freely admit I modelled myself on him and two decades later, as a head, I met him at a conference and told him I had done that.

My experience of this sort of person was that he’d indulge his kids like anything and they’d adore him but they always knew the limits. It would be more than your life was worth to threaten one of those kids. He was so even-tempered with them too. I also thought at the time how good it would be to have a woman in there as well as a counterpoint [in a classroom situation] because there are some things only a woman can provide.

We tried to do this where I last had a regular class. The young woman who had the class next door wanted me to drop in from time to time and teach her kids and I liked her to come in and take mine, to give them a break from the discipline.

Often we’d combine classes and that had to have been the best time I can remember in teaching. She firmed up her discipline and I softened up as a result of her. This girl is a character in my first book, by the way and her real name appears.


Out of discipline, affectionately applied, comes self-discipline – the ability to delay gratification, the ability to persevere and people who have self-discipline make up a society which is capable of progress.

The opposite … and look about you … doesn’t bear thinking about.  In terms of discipline, to allow all sort of horrible things to run rampant and then to send in the police to overkill – that’s insanity. To criminalize and prosecute the innocent and to let off the guilty is also insane. What a surefire way to create disintegration and demoralization .. but that was the idea all along, wasn’t it?