The Waldorf School of Santa Barbara

Tools for Building the Capacities for Self Discipline: My advice to parents of young children

By Angela Mietzke, Kindergarten Teacher and Early Childhood Program Director

Parenting is hard work. Children are constantly changing and developing and we have to be conscious and awake to meet their needs and give them space to grow and change. One of the biggest aspects of our jobs as parents is to learn to be an observer in our homes. To notice when something is amiss and to get to the bottom of why our children are out of sorts. Sometimes this takes investigation sometimes the answer is straightforward.  

Throughout my years of teaching and my journey with my own parenting, I found that Rhythm is the best tool I have. It is important to create a time and a place for everything. Creating routines around getting ready for school, eating and bedtime can build stability and consistency for us and our children. A basic frame work goes a long way in creating stability for your child.

When children know what is going to happen next they can relax into it. This doesn’t mean they won’t try to push the limits, but if you are consistent, calm, and compassionate about transitions and your children meet the same boundary every day, they’ll begin to trust in what comes next and feel like they can depend on it.

Children will probably revisit and challenge the boundaries you’ve established but stand strong, acknowledge frustrations and continue to direct them into the next step. “You may pick up the toy.” Or, if they are struggling to do this, “I will help you…” Then follow through with what you’ve asked of the child with the child. Avoid bargaining.

Have a plan or a clear picture of what your evening, morning, or day will look like. If there is something out of rhythm communicate it to your child, for instance if they are going to visit Grandma’s tell them about it and paint a picture of what the change will look like. If there is sadness about being away from you, don’t dwell on their sadness. Hold in your heart (and demonstrate through your actions) the belief that your children will be all right and that they have the ability to meet the challenge at hand. Children live into our feelings and if they find security there it will instill confidence in them.

When your child is acting out or melting down go back to the basics:

Acknowledge feelings: Say what you see: “I see that you are feeling (sad, angry, frustrated, upset).” Let them know that it is normal to have those feelings “I feel sad sometimes too.” Make feelings relatable, but don’t over sympathize. Model confidence that your child will be able to meet whatever challenge is ahead of them. Relating stories from your own childhood can help normalize feelings and give your child a picture of resolution.  


Review their basic needs: Are they hungry, are they tired? Are they over stimulated? Have they had media, been around loud noises or confusing places such as the mall? Are they too hot or cold? Are they out of their normal routine or rhythm?

Do not give children too many choices: Practice being a loving authority, mean what you say and say what you mean. If you draw a boundary stick with it. Avoid bargaining, as it tends to make children feel insecure. Be the decision maker, this takes undue pressure off of your child.

Be creative: If it is clean up time, listen to your child before initiating clean up. What are they playing? Enter into your child’s play to ease the transition. If your child is playing fireman become a fireman yourself. Tell your child “the firemen are going to clean the station so that it is clean when the chief comes to visit the fire station.” Make cleanup a fun game. “The chief is going to be here in five minutes let’s see how many things we can put away before he knocks at the door.”

Have realistic expectations: Most children under age five can only follow one or two instructions at a time. If you ask them to put on their shoes, coat, mittens, and hat, they may miss one or more of the steps. Pick up time expectations for the child of three to five, should be between 5-8 minutes. Older children may be able to sustain 10-12 minutes. Children need modeling so if you want them to clean up, clean up with them. Slow down; be intentional about how you put things away so that your child can observe your care for the environment around you.

Sing to your child: Songs and verses help with transitions. “This is the way we clean up our toys clean up our toys, clean up our toys so early in the morning… “ You can replace with any other activity like brushing teeth, put on our shoes, etc… I heard of a family that looked out of the window every night at bedtime and sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as their good night blessing. This brought a special twist to their bedtime ritual.

Practice simplicity: Remember, school is a big activity for the young child. Extra classes, television, videos, and recorded music can be over stimulating. Often children need free play or quiet snuggle time when getting home from school so that they can work through everything they have done and been exposed to at school.   Look at the rhythm of your week, if you are feeling stretched and overburdened then chances are your child does too. Is there anything you can cut out or let go of to simplify the week? Keep in mind that for every 10 minutes of instruction or directed activity the young child needs at least one hour of free play or rest to process the information. Their ability to hold attention longer and process things with ease will strengthen if given supportive process time at a young age.

Stories can help children work through struggle: If your child is struggling with something, bring it to them in story form. At night you could tell them a story about an animal that is struggling with something similar. How does the animal meet the challenge and move through it? Give the child a helping figure in the story that can support the character in finding resolution. Old Mother Owl is often the helper being in my nature stories. Children also like to hear stories about when you were little. Maybe you had a similar experience and found a solution to a problem or there was something that helped you through a difficult time. Share your experience!

Imagination: I often keep a puppet or small toy in my pocket so that when I need the children’s attention I can hold it in an imaginative way. Ferdinand the mouse lives in my purse and often I will have him give a little squeak to get the children’s attention. I let him crawl on my arm and then up to my ear. He often “tells” me what I am missing or where I need to go, and I pass the message onto the children; for example: “Ferdinand wanted me to tell you that there are still some beans under the table that need to be swept. Do you see the beans that Ferdinand sees?” ”Do you know that in Ferdinand’s house the mice always pick up the beans, or the Mama mouse might stamp her foot? Let us pick up the beans here too!”   This approach engages the children with the task in a very imaginative and fun way.

Nature Connection: Nature connection is a good way to center yourself and your child. Sometimes getting out and taking a walk can help set the restart button on a difficult situation or day. Just the rhythm of walking can help us to center ourselves. Sharing a special sit spot with your child in your yard or at a park and watching the animals and plants can be a calming experience that helps to refocus both of you. I used to love to make up stories about the robin in our back yard. We named her Red and she became the basis for many stories that reflected things we were experiencing. For instance one day Red found a big fat worm and did not want to share. Her friend Charlie had seen it too, but Red snatched it away and gobbled it up right in front of Charlie. Then Charlie cried and Red felt sad about eating it all up so Red went back to the garden and found Charlie another worm and brought it to him in the tree top. Nature often gives the gift of story if we are paying attention.

Less is more: If you are struggling with clean up time, limit the amount of toys that are available to your child. My sister in law would often rotate the toys that the children would play with and had a special spot where some of the toys “slept.” If one of her children wanted a specific toy they would trade in another one. That way they did not have too much out at a time. Too many choices can inhibit healthy play.

Cleanup before bed so that you wake to a blank slate: If your child is someone who gets lost in play in the morning, limit the amount of toys they have access to. I knew one mom who had a small rug that was the morning play place and each morning she would set out a toy on the rug, that was the morning toy and when she rang her bell the children had to tuck the toy into its box so it could be well rested and ready to play when the child got home from school. This kept her child from getting out all of the Legos or blocks in the morning but gave a place and something for him to play with. The bell set the time for putting the toy away and the mom was matter of fact when it was time to move on. “This toy waited up all night to play with you and now he needs to sleep so he will be rested when you get home from school. Then you can play together!” The child also loved this ritual because the toy was always a surprise in the morning. It may also be fun to let the child ring the bell to initiate the transition.

Set out clothes the night before: If your child has a difficult time getting dressed in the morning have everything ready in advance. Planning helps everyone with the transitions.

Observe your child and your rhythm: Pay attention to when they act out, go back to the basics first and see what triggered the response. Check in with yourself. Are you the captain of the ship? If so, where are you going? When children are acting out or pushing boundaries they are often trying to show us how they feel because children do not always have words for their feelings.  The young child communicates through action.  It is up to us to pause and ask what our children are trying to tell us when they are acting out. Children often seek out a boundary because they need it to feel secure. When children push the boundaries they are asking to meet the boundary, and often relax when they know that we are holding it for them.


Observation: One of the best tools as parents is the use of our own observations.  Keeping a journal can help you recognize sticking points in your day with your child and may give you insight into arising patterns or contributing factors. Pay attention to your child's moods when they are acting out of control, chances are they are trying to show you how they are feeling. Children's actions give us insight into their feeling life.  My encouragement to all parents is to review their interactions with their children, and share their struggles with other adults.  Sometimes it takes another friend or parent to help us see a different way of connecting or supporting our children.  


Talk less. Do More: Actions are more effective than words. Over talking and explaining is similar to bargaining, and can often leave your child feeing uncertain and insecure.

Modeling decision making, self-trust, clear and consistent boundaries, a balanced rhythm and being a loving authority, is a living example for your children. These actions give children a foundation for life long health, self-assurance and confidence.

Children who have parents who model loving authority have better boundaries for themselves as adults. Children who have regular bedtimes and get plenty of sleep tend to be adults who are able to care for themselves in this way, and can recognize when they are in need of rest. Children who are overscheduled tend to become adults who are overscheduled. Children who have a rhythm of cleaning up after playing, establish a pattern of organization in their lives as adults.

Every rhythm and habit we model for our children will either support or limit them in the long run. Keeping our focus on these long-term outcomes can help us in shifting the ways we meet our young children in the present moment.

There are no hard or fast rules in parenting, only helpful hints.  This is a tall task, and a lifelong journey. Seeking the support from others, to grow in our own self-awareness and deepening of our desire to review our interactions with our children, is a very healthy approach. Trusting others with our questions and concerns about our parenting and child rearing approach can support us tremendously in this high task.  It takes a village, and we have a strong one here in our sweet Waldorf School!