The Magical Question: a Tool to Teach Self-Discipline


As you stand in your kitchen contemplating what to make for dinner, you hear shouting, whining, and complaining, alerting you that your children are gearing up for a battle. Holding your breath and hoping this skirmish will resolve itself…. you wait. Next, you hear the plaintive cries from your youngest. Now…. you must intervene.

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Writing on the board with your back to your class, you hear two students involved in a dispute, their volume slowly (and steadily) increasing. They are more engaged with one another than with classroom learning. They are interfering with other students’ learning. You can no longer ignore these two students.

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Whether you are a parent or a teacher, these scenes probably sound familiar. Too familiar. The typical adult response has been, “Why did you do that?” only to have children answer, “I don’t know,” eyes downcast – shoulders shrugging. Occasionally, one child might attempt to explain the situation by pointing at the other child and say, “She did it to me first.” As I have suggested before, using the “tried and true” method for dealing with misbehaving children is as archaic and as “effective” as using a rotary telephone in 2012. But I want to do more than simply identify what doesn’t work. Today, I’ll explain the latest, most up-to-date, and effective methods to teach children self-discipline. In fact, teaching children self-discipline is the most effective method of behavior management. Let’s begin with a question.

“What is the purpose of behavior?” All behavior – from birth until death – is a person’s best attempt to follow their genetic instructions and meet their needs for safety, love, power, fun, and freedom. We are born with these urges and they last a lifetime. Even though children are born with these needs, they are not born with the capacity to follow them in (a) responsible and respectful ways. A child is only aware of her urge: to grab a toy that she sees; to push to the front of the line when it’s time to go to lunch; to stay up later than the established bedtime; and so forth. Children behave to satisfy these needs. It doesn’t matter whether the behavior is responsible or not. From a child’s perspective, their “misbehavior” is not their problem. From a child’s perspective, their behavior is a simple attempt to get something they want or need.

Knowing this, parents and teachers should expect that children will misbehave. It’s part of the territory. The good news is this: every time a child misbehaves, we – parents and teachers – have an opportunity to do our job. When a child misbehaves, we can immediately teach the child how to get what she wants responsibly and respectfully.

Why is “immediately” the best, most effective time to teach children? Because when a child is misbehaving, he is highly motivated to learn how to behave effectively! While his motivation is not really about learning to behave more responsibly or respectfully, he really wants what he wants. If he needs to learn a different, more respectful, and responsible way to get what he wants, then he’s glad to do it. Why is he so ready and motivated to learn a new behavior? Because it will help him get what he wants!

Here’s how it works in real life:

Parent to misbehaving son: “Johnny, what do you want that you are trying to get by hitting your brother?”

Or…

Parent to daughter: “Sally, what do you want that you are trying to get by sneaking out of bed after bedtime?”

Or…

Teacher to student: “Freddy, what do you want that you are trying to get by grabbing your neighbor’s pencil?”

Or…

Teacher to student: “What do you want that you are trying to get by not completing your homework assignment?”

These are all examples of what I call “The Magical Question.” What makes this question magical? Children answer it! They tell you what they want! Instead of tumbling down the black hole of “Why did you do that?” we become the child’s ally when we ask, “What do you want?”

So far we have only looked at things from the child’s perspective. But you still have a problem: the child’s misbehavior. While their misbehavior may not be a problem to them, it sure is to you! The next part is where you advocate for what you want.

How? By asking the following question: “If we can figure out a way to help you get what you want in a respectful and responsible way, are you willing to figure it out?” Equally effective is asking the child, “If we can figure out a way for you to get what you want and still follow the rules, are you interested in learning how to do it?” Or, “If we could figure out a way to help you get what you want without hurting your brother, are you willing to learn?”

At this point, you know what the child wants (what is motivating her misbehavior) and the child has told you that she is willing to learn a different, more responsible, and respectful way of getting what she wants. Your task now is to teach the child how to get what she wants responsibly and respectfully. But notice the monumental shift that has taken place. Instead of being in the role of “enforcer,” you are in the role of “teacher,” a far more enjoyable role for every adult. And the child believes that you are interested in helping her get what she wants rather than an obstacle standing in her way.

What do you have to lose by giving this new transformative way of working with misbehaving children a try? By taking this one step in the direction of understanding that children’s behavior is never their problem, your will be taking giant step toward improved relationships and behavior management at home and in the classroom.

PS. This magical question is helpful to ask yourself during those stressful times when you are behaving in ways that you are not proud of. As you are yelling at other drivers on the road you could ask yourself, “What do I want that I am trying to get by yelling at the other drivers? If I could figure out another way to get what I want am I willing to work it out?” You might find this a helpful and surprising process to use for yourself!

PPS. The magical question is also effective to ask children when they are not misbehaving. It is equally useful when children are behaving responsibly and respectfully and effectively. This helps them pay attention to the effective and successful strategies they use. “Girls, I notice you are working cooperatively together on this school project. I wonder what you want that you are trying to get by working so well together?” (Note: Be prepared for the children to look at you like you’re crazy!) Parents can do the same. “Boys, I notice how well you are working together to clean your room. What is it you want that you are trying to get by cooperating?” Your children might think you have lost your mind and they might tell you things that will surprise you!

Behavior management, whether at home or in the classroom, depends on everyone practicing self-discipline. Using the magical question is a quick and effective strategy to teach children self-discipline. And this strategy offers the respect to children that adults demand they demonstrate towards them. Not only does this process work immediately; just as importantly, it also teaches children to be lifelong self-disciplined citizens of home, classroom, and the community.


About the author -

Nancy Buck

Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, expert in children’s motivation and behavior, and parenting coach. Fresh, funny and unafraid, she tackles the tough topics facing all families today. As the founder of Peaceful Parenting Inc®, blogger for Psychology Today and author of Peaceful Parenting and Why Do Kids Act That Way? The Instruction Manual Parents Need to Understand Children at Every Age, she gives lively presentations that audiences relate to and remember. To learn more or to contact Dr. Buck, visit PeacefulParenting.com.


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