No Structure = No Discipline

I’ve only played paintball once in my life. I hated it.

I don’t have an ounce of tomboy in me, which is probably why God blessed me with five little boys. Paintball was a terrifying to me. I never knew when or where a painful sting would hit, followed by the splat of neon goo. By the end of the game I was shaking and I was covered with hits.

Isn’t that exactly how we mamas often feel at the end of a “discipline day?” You know what I mean. The bullets start flying first thing in the morning. The toddler chucks his breakfast on the floor. The four-year-old hits his brother. The oldest decides to enter teenage rebellion at age 6. Every discipline situation is like an unexpected, painful hit from out of nowhere.

There’s good news, moms. Discipline doesn’t have to feel like a losing paintball battle. There is a foundational tool that makes discipline predictable and productive: Structure

Before you cringe and stop reading, let me put your mind at ease. Structure doesn’t mean rigid rules and schedules that add more pressure to your day, just to leave you feeling like a failure at the end of it. Structure simply means: having a plan. It means your day has consistency and purpose. Any mom, no matter how organized or disorganized, can utilize structure.

Whether you naturally gravitate toward structure or not, structure is crucial to the mental and spiritual development of our kids. It gives them ample time and a secure environment to practice the skills we teach them. If you wanted your child to learn piano you would have him sit at the piano and practice. That’s structure. If you didn’t have any structure, it would be like having him learn to play the piano by hitting a key or two every time he ran through the room. No consistency, no plan = no learning. In the same way, successful discipline is impossible without structure to your day.

I want to give you an example of my daily structure. Every mom’s structure will look different. Mine is just one example. This is what I do with my four boys ages 6, 5, 3, and 2 (#5 is on the way). The key to a daily structure is consistency. These are the things we do at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way every day. You’ll see the discipline skills I’m able to plug into each phase of my structure. (This is our summer schedule, so you won’t see school work here.)

Wake up: The kids wake up to a small bowl of dry cereal in their rooms that I set out the night before. They are allowed to come out of their rooms after they’ve had their snack and played quietly. This teaches thoughtfulness because it gives them a daily opportunity to practice not disturbing others with their noise. If they don’t practice thoughtfulness, they have to go back to their beds.

Breakfast: Our kids have the same choices every day: cereal with milk and scrambled eggs. I don’t say, “What do you feel like having today?” This is my chance to teach thankfulness and contentment because their choices are limited. If they complain about what I put in front of them I take it away and say, “If you don’t want your breakfast you can say, ‘No thank you, Mommy,’ and you may be excused. If you want your breakfast, you say, ‘Thank you, Mommy,’ when I give it to you.” When they know those are their only two options, they always choose thankfulness. We always have a special breakfast on Saturday like pancakes or waffles.

Free play: This is when the kids can choose an activity from the toy closet. They must clean up one before choosing another. We call this “Free Play” to remind them that freedom is a privilege. If they use their free play inappropriately (causing a fight, being wild, etc.), their freedom gets taken away and I will choose an activity for them – usually sitting on their beds alone with a quiet toy or book. This teaches wisdom and responsibility. They have to practice making wise choices to protect their free time. This is also the time I look for opportunities to reinforce kindness as they interact with each other.

Outside time: This time covers the same skills as free play. Since we do it every single day, they know it is non-negotiable. When I say, “Outside time!” – everyone grabs their shoes and heads for the back door. They may not come back in until I tell them. In the winter time this switches to “Basement Time.”

Lunch: They can choose between a limited number of options and must use “Table Behavior” or they will be excused. This gives them a chance to practice self-control and politeness. There is no playing, touching, loud sounds, or chewing and talking with their mouths open. Of course each of these things do happen at each meal, which is why it’s the perfect opportunity to practice. Actually, I just had to add one today: No licking someone else’s face. We keep the rules repetitive and simple and talk about them throughout the entire meal.

Clean up and Quiet Time: Clean up teaches perseverance and responsibility. All of our toy bins are labeled and they are always kept in the same place. This helps the kids not feel overwhelmed when it’s time to clean up. We model how to clean up around the time the kids start walking. Quiet time is the same everyday: Reading books quietly for 25 minutes, playing quietly in the room for 25 minutes, and then 25 minutes of screen time. The little ones sleep during this time. My 6-year-old likes to leave his room and ask for different options. I say, “No. This is what we do every day so I can teach you to have a good attitude and be independent.” I started using a timer for him in his room so he doesn’t keep asking me if quiet time is over.

Separate Play: I tuck this in throughout the day to give each boy some space. Each boy has a different area to play in quietly. Some of my boys thrive on playing alone and others hate it. I use this time to talk to them about peace. Sometimes it’s okay to be alone with your thoughts, play quietly, and be creative. We say, “Our house is a house of peace, not chaos.”

Bedtime: The day continues with another block of free play, followed by dinner and our bedtime routine. The kids take turns in the bathroom getting ready for bed. As soon as each boy is done, he must wait on his bed and quietly look at books. When all the boys are ready for bed we see whose turn it is to pick the book for me to read aloud. I have a “Name Block” that I turn each night to see whose turn it is. This eliminates fighting over who chooses. It also cuts down on – “One more story!” They know it’s one story every night.

You can see I plan out chunks of time, not every second. This gives me flexibility within my structure. You can also see that our day is very simple. It looks like we’re just accomplishing basic survival, but so much more is happening. Purposeful training is happening. Structure frees up my brain to concentrate on the teachable moments that pop up within each activity. None of this would be possible if we didn’t spend lots and lots of time at home. Your structure needs a home base. Say “No” to things and give yourself lots of time at home to practice your structure. You don’t have to make every day a big adventure for your kids by going out. Practicing your structure at home will be an adventure enough – and they will actually enjoy it more than daily outings.

What about play dates, family outings, sickness, etc? What happens when structure is interrupted? Think of your kids like Jello and your structure like those fancy Jello molds. Every day you pour discipline and character training into your kids. Your structure is what holds it all together. Then, on special occasions when the structure is taken away, discipline still holds its shape. My kids know that behavior at a birthday party should be no different than behavior at home. The same thoughtfulness and self-control they practice everyday at home applies to walking around the grocery store.

Structure doesn’t add more work to your plate. It takes work away. Remember how much energy it takes to dodge flying paint balls all day? Structure arms you. You go into Quiet Time thinking, “This is when we are going to practice self-control.” You go into “Free Play” thinking, “This is when I’m watching for those wise choices and kindness.” You’re prepared. It becomes a habit, both for you and your kids. The day goes by faster and more smoothly. This is called “Paying it forward,” moms. We invest our time and energy is structure and discipline now and we will reap the benefits for years to come.

What does your daily structure look like? How have you seen it benefit your discipline? Share with other moms who need ideas and encouragement!

Books by Sara Wallace:


Created to Care: God’s Truth for Anxious Moms

“The gospel is the foundation for what it means to be a mother. It is always through this lens that Sara’s wisdom comes shining into our daily lives where joining all the dots can be tricky.” – Kristyn Getty, soloist; composer; hymnwriter; coauthor of Sing!

For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs

“The culmination of 30 years of evangelical thinking about parenting. Clear guidelines, great illustrations, and very practical. – Pastor Steve, Atlanta

The Gospel-Centered Mom Bible Study

“The Gospel-Centered Mom is a huge gulp of refreshing air for moms who are in the thick of raising kids. It takes your eyes off of your performance and places them on the one who performed perfectly for us.” – Jessica Thompson, co-author of Give Them Grace


13 thoughts on “No Structure = No Discipline

  1. I like the thoughtful character traits corresponding to the activity blocks. I'm wondering if your grocery store game is tight and if you could share any tips for a mother of five who needs to include the kids in our trip the majority of the time? My kids are very helpful and participate by shopping off their own mom-prepared list. My little ones sit quietly in the cart and help put items on the belt at checkout time. I wish we were more on auto-pilot here so we could interact with all those pairs of eyes that are curious about our family(without losing our momentum before the baby gets hungry). Any ideas to add? 🙂


  2. Hi Ruth! I love the ideas you have already! There is no easy way to get the shopping done with all the kids. But you're right – sometimes it has to be done. I love your list idea for the kids. I find that if I have all the kids with me I have to have my own list because I cannot manage the kids and keep track of what I came for at the same time. The one thing that makes the biggest difference for me is having a pep talk before we leave the house. We talk about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. We talk about the consequences for disobeying at the store and we talk about the fun things we get to shop for. My wiggly ones have to spend the majority of the time with a hand on the cart. Also, my kids love it when I grab a fresh loaf of french bread and let them eat hunks off of it while we walk. hahahaha. Not sure if the store appreciates that, but it sure helps. 🙂


  3. Hi Sara, my name is Holly!
    I have studied your book with other moms at my church, and it is so helpful and gospel-centered! I cannot tell you how many times we refer back to things in your book or your blog. The Lord is using you in so many ways!
    I love this schedule you have. I have 3 little boys ages 1, 3, and 5. I am also starting homeschooling this year. Are you going to post a schedule for school work? I would love to see what you do here. Thank you for all your wisdom and insight!


  4. I have 3 boys, age 4, 2, and 2. They always come to the grocery store with me. I keep our routine very consistent so they know what to expect.
    When they are tiny, they ride in the cart. As they get older, they graduate to walking while keeping a hand touching the cart. Once they show they can control themselves, they start earning the privilege of letting go and walking on their own, but they must stay very close initially. As they show responsibility with that, I let them roam more freely. I am also very firm that we do not run or shout in a store, ever. (Of course this happens nearly every visit anyway, but I address and correct the behavior immediately.) If someone is showing me they can't handle the freedom they've been given, they ride in the cart that day and we try again next time.
    I also ask them to help quite a bit, by getting items from the shelf, loading them on the check-out lane, and putting items into bags before we leave. They love the responsibility, and it helps keep them busy. I praise them for being a big boy who is helpful and responsible in serving our family, and they eat that up.
    I also let each boy bring one small toy or book along if they want to, but I make it clear that they have to be responsible to keep track of it. My middle son left his book behind at the store just this week and we did not go back for it. He was sad, but it was a valuable lesson.
    My biggest tip though is for you as the mom: view your time at the store as learning/growth time for your children, not merely getting a job checked off your to-do list. This attitude adjustment helps me so much. No matter what you do, it's challenging to have them along, but it can also lead to so much growth for your littles, and for your relationship with them as well.
    Thank you for this wonderful post! So many good ideas here.


  5. Wow, I am so glad it's been a blessing!! I'd love to post about schooling at some point in the future, but it's all an experiment for me right now. 🙂 I'm always interested in how other moms schedule their school time, so feel free to post your ideas on my Facebook page or shoot me an email – Sounds like we will have a lot in common!


  6. I love this. This sounds exactly like what we do! I love your encouragement to not hyper focus on the actual shopping. The shopping is actually secondary. Training those little hearts is the priority. Great reminder.


  7. This was great and something I definitely need to work on. Please if you get the chance, please post your homeschooling structure. I've been failing at this (no, I'm not being dramatic) and I'd love to know what character you associate with each time block to help ME stay focused (so I can then help my kids). 😀 Thanks!


  8. This sounds so great. I'm just curious about what you're doing during the blocks, do you sit with them and look for the teaching opportunities during the different time blocks? What about housework? For me I try to set up some structure (not as well thought out as yours) but when I put the kids to do something then I try to do housework while they're busy but usually that leads to chaos cuz then add I'm working on something I hear the fighting and don't even really know what happened. I also struggle with knowing what to do with myself if I do sit with them during an activity because I dint always have something to say or do =(
    Thank you


  9. Hi, Sara! I enjoyed hearing about your daily structure. I used to teach preschool before my daughter was born and my experience with that initially prompted me to have more of a detailed structure as you do for your littles. I actually found that my daughter and I both thrive with more flexibility! We definitely have flow to our day and predictable routines though. I always love to see the diversity present within believers and enjoy hearing about different families. Grace and peace to you!


  10. Hi, Sara! I enjoyed hearing about your daily structure. I used to teach preschool before my daughter was born and my experience with that initially prompted me to have more of a detailed structure as you do for your littles. I actually found that my daughter and I both thrive with more flexibility! We definitely have flow to our day and predictable routines though. I always love to see the diversity present within believers and enjoy hearing about different families. Grace and peace to you!


  11. Question: when the kids don’t follow table manners and they are excused, are they excused for a certain period of time or for the rest of the meal? Meaning do they miss out on dinner and have to wait until breakfast the next morning? I’m struggling with one of my four boys (he just turned 11) who constantly needs to be told to close his mouth while he’s chewing, not talk with food in his mouth, stop making loud noises at the table etc… he’s also the last one to finish his meal every night because he’s doing so many other things and not focused on eating. in addition, he often says he’s hungry later and I struggle with should I give him more food because he’s a growing boy or is this a ploy to stay up later? I know if I excused him from the meal and that was it as far as food for the rest of the night there’s going to be pushed back in regards to being hungry later, but perhaps this is what I need to do so that he feels the natural consequences, just wondering how you do that when you excuse the kids from the table. Any thoughts or suggestions are much appreciated! Thanks in advance!


    1. Hi Krystal! That’s a great question. It’s so important for kids to get enough food. We can’t help their hearts if we haven’t helped their bodies! When I excuse someone from the table it’s just for a few minutes for them to think about why they were excused and how they should change their behavior. It reminds them that sitting at the table is a privilege. My kids ask for more food after dinner, too. I have started leaving a little bit of dinner out on the counter so that if someone is genuinely hungry, they can have some more (especially since bedtime is hours after dinner). But I try to limit the choice to just dinner instead of letting them make something different just because they didn’t like the dinner. If you keep your expectations consistent, your son will learn. It’s okay to chip away at it every night. 🙂 That’s what we’re doing over here!


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