Beside/s: Variations on Self-Control

This afternoon, I’ve spent a lot of time reading various accounts of what self-control is and what it does (to us). I want to put these accounts beside each other as I continue to think through why I dislike repeated calls for kids (and adults) to have more self-control. Instead of offering much of my own commentary (that might come later), I want to juxtapose these accounts as a way of posing (a) question(s) or offering an invitation to engage.

Note: These various accounts don’t all use the term self-control, some refer to self-discipline or will-power.

Account One:

Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rule 5

And, my problematizer inspired by it:

Account Two

Paul Tough on Self-Control, Grit and Conscientiousness
How Children Succeed book excerpt

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has made it her life’s work to analyze which children succeed and why. She says she finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition—the willpower, the self-control—to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If children are highly motivated, self-control techniques and exercises—things like learning how to distract themselves from temptations or to think about their goals abstractly—might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.

Account Three

Angela Duckworth’s Grit Survey:

Grit Defined:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Account Four

Sara Ahmed and the Willfulness Archive

Account Four

My Thoughts on Self-Control
On Self-Control and the Trouble with Discipline, Part 1 and Part 2

on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 2: troubling images

Yesterday, I listed off 4 reasons (among many others) for why I refuse/reject/resist using or claiming the terms, “self-control” or “discipline”:

one: They conjure up damaging images and reinforce problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined.
two: They are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (a la Bill Bennett).
three: They are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many.
four: They are privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values, like respect, responsibility, attentiveness, vulnerability.

In part 2 of this series, I want to focus on reason #1: Troubling images and understandings. Much of how we understand “self-control” and “discipline” is constructed through the repeated citing of its failures, represented by various non-normative bodies in a variety of oppressive images which, when repeated enough, become ingrained understandings (stereotypes) of entire groups. These images of failure function as threatening reminders of what we will become if we don’t act properly and with self-control and discipline; they haunt our actions and keep us in line. They also reduce the people who are recognized as failing to oppressive stereotypes. I come to the idea of the haunting/threatening image through J Butler and her understandings of the abject in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. For more on understanding of abject, see this class summary). 

Here are (just a few) examples of these images:

There are many problems with reinforcing these images. For example, if failure’s image of a lack of willpower is “the Fat Slob,” fat becomes equated with failure and the inability to have control. This leads to understandings of all fat people as lacking willpower and being weak slobs, which leads to the stigmatization of people who fall outside of our accepted weight ideals (either determined by pounds and the medical profession’s ever-changing obesity charts or by appearance and pop culture’s regulations of who/what is beautiful), which leads to the dehumanizing of those non-normative bodies. Here’s just one example of the reinforcing of fat = lack of willpower = stupid slob (so disturbing). And here’s a list of blogs by fat studies scholars/activists/bloggers that challenge this dehumanizing equation of fat = failure.

In another example, if failure’s image of the lazy (non) worker is the Welfare Queen, most frequently represented by the single Black mother, receiving Welfare becomes equated with failure and a refusal to be disciplined and work hard. This leads to understandings of all welfare recipients as lazy and undeserving of a “free” handout from others who actually are disciplined and work hard, which leads to the stigmatization of Welfare, and particularly those who are assumed to receive it the most, Black single mothers. This in turn leads to the dehumanizing of those who are unable to get jobs or who must, for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, depend on Welfare. Here’s one critical tracing of the welfare queen stereotype. You should also check out Patricia Hill Collins’ classic Black Feminist Thought, particularly her chapter: Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images. 

I could go on and on about how these threatening images of failure are damaging to all sorts of folks who fall outside of the mythical norm, like how young black men are frequently read as disciplinary problems and written off as future criminals or how any expression of emotion by women of color, in particular, black women, is understood to signal a failure to control one’s anger and show restraint, or how HIlary Clinton was dismissed as a viable presidential candidate because her PMS would cause her to be too emotional and unstable at certain times of the month. But in the interest of making this post less than 1000 words, I’ll stop…for now.

My point in briefly discussing these damaging images of self-control’s failure is not that every time someone uses the terms “self-control” or “discipline” they are deliberately trying to dehumanize fat people as weak slobs or stigmatize welfare recipients as “Welfare queens.” Instead, the point is that these terms are inextricably tied, in the public imagination, to threatening images of what happens when you fail to have control or be disciplined. When these words are used, they invoke a whole history of meanings that, in my undisciplined opinion, are too invested in regulating and reproducing the mythical norm.

We need new terms and understandings for the values that “self-control” and “discipline” claim to represent. Maybe we also need some new values that contribute to our surviving and thriving that don’t emphasize staying in line and unquestioningly follow orders? More on those thoughts in a future post…

As a final thought: I struggled in writing this post. Having spent so much time over the past decade thinking about the problems with controlling people’s “excessive” behavior through threats and calls for “self-control” and “discipline,” I wonder if I was able to effectively introduce this critique to a reader who is not familiar with it. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. 

on self-control and the trouble with discipline, pt 1

As someone who often struggled with self-control as a child and who is strongly resistant to being disciplined (even now; my twitter handle is undisciplined, after all), I bristled when I first saw the title of a recent op-ed from the New York Times: Teaching Self-Control the American Way. After reading the op-ed, which is about encouraging kids to regulate themselves and develop discipline through playing and engaging repeatedly in activities that they are passionate about, I found that I appreciate much of the authors’ ideas.

Primarily a reaction against disciplinary models that demand close supervision of kids and strict regulation of their behaviors and physical/mental practices (models that are exemplified and promoted by books like, Bringing Up Bébé), this brief article encourages parents to leave their kids alone, letting them play, pursue their own passions, and work their bodies so they can develop “cognitive flexibility” instead of the ability to rigidly follow rules and memorize facts. Sounds good to me! I’m a big proponent of play and letting kids follow their own passions. And I strongly believe that kids need to have space and time to exercise and be physically active. As a side note, I was struck by a line from the article: “Though parents often worry that physical education takes time away from the classroom…” Really? I find this sad to read that some parents want kids to have even less time for P.E. Furthermore, I love the idea of empowering kids to develop their own practices and tools for learning how to manage themselves.

But, while I appreciate the authors’ critique of rigid disciplinary methods and their emphasis on play, passion, exercise and harnessing kids’ own “internal motivations,” I still don’t like their repeated use of language like “self-control” and “discipline.” Why? This is a question that I’ve struggled with the past few years as I’ve developed and practiced my own vision of making and staying in trouble. Even as I promote trouble and embrace being undisciplined, I recognize the value and necessity of training, control and being able (and willing) to follow rules. With two children, I really recognize the value of following certain rules and being able to manage our bodies and emotions…like when we’re all in the grocery store and they’re just about to lose their shit because I won’t buy them [insert super-processed, fructose-corn syruped “fruit” snack here].

I’ve always deeply enjoyed engaging in repeated practices and building up skills. And I like rituals and habits, all of which seem to be important qualities of a person who can effectively manage/direct themselves responsibly and who is considered to have “self-control” and “discipline.” Throughout my childhood, I was actively involved in organized physical activities—5 years of ballet, a year of gymnastics, a year of basketball, 6 years of soccer, 5 years of swimming—and music—I played the clarinet and was in band for 12 years. I was also a diligent student with 26 (yes, 26: K-12, undergrad, masters, PhD) years of schooling. All of these activities have contributed to my vision of troublemaking as rooted in repeated practices and the building up of habits and skills. But, I would never claim to be disciplined and to have self-control.

Like I mentioned in the opening lines of this post, I bristle at these terms. Why is that? When I started writing this post yesterday, I don’t think I could have quite articulated why but now, having used the process of writing this post as a way to think, reflect and trouble “self-control” and “discipline,” I’ve developed a few reasons.

I refuse/reject/resist “self-control” and “discipline” because these terms, which are supposedly universal and objective, have become common-sense assumptions/Norms that we are encouraged to uncritically accept as givens without analyzing how they came to be accepted and at whose expense. This is evident in the New York Times op-ed. Throughout it, they argue for the value of self-control without ever clearly defining it; it is just assumed that we know what they mean. Sure, I agree with the idea that we need to encourage kids (and adults too!) to learn how to handle their emotions/reactions, to pay attention to rules/others/the world, and to develop strategies for surviving and thriving in the world (which all seem to be implied goals for acquiring self-control and discipline). However, when “self-control” and “discipline” are invoked, they frequently cite and reinforce particular images and understandings that are extremely damaging to a wide range of folks that fail to embody, in a wide range of ways, what Audre Lorde describes as the mythical norm or the assumed/implied Subject/Self (mythical norm = white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle-classed, educated, thin, able-bodied, etc). I’ll go into more detail about what I mean here in a future post.

In addition to conjuring up damaging images and reinforcing problematic understandings of who is/isn’t able to have control and be disciplined, these terms are frequently linked to a particular set of conservative values (e.g. the first virtue in Bill Bennet’s The Book of Virtues is self-discipline) that are shaped by a very narrow vision of success/happiness that is unwanted and/or unachievable by many and that is privileged at the expense of a number of other, equally (or more) important values (like respect, attentiveness, vulnerability).

I want to spend time discussing all four of these (and probably more too) reasons why I refuse/resist/reject “self-control” and “discipline.” And I plan to in future posts. But, since I don’t have much more time today, I want to end with a screen shot of my report card (the only report card I still have) from 1st grade at Clyde Campbell Elementary in Hickory, North Carolina (in 1980-1981). The screen shot focuses on my “social and work habits,” which are all pretty decent. Notice that some of my lowest marks are for “practices self-discipline” (ha!) and my highest are for “accepts responsibility” and “respect.” Responsibility and respect are core values for me as an adult.