Punishment Vs. Discipline

Our two sons have stepped out of babyhood. They are now – delightful little boys, able to talk, express themselves, play together, and participate much more in family life. I LOVE being able to send my three year old to the kitchen to get bananas or some other snack for the two of them. Mommy gets a break once in a while! But new challenges come together with new capabilities, and we are in a stage where our kids associate cause and effect, and therefore need to be taught and guided.

Although many people see them as synonymous, discipline and punishment are not the same. Punishment comes from the Latin word punire, which means to chastise, penalize or inflict pain. To discipline, however, comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means to instruct, guide or impart knowledge.

Disciplining and punishing are two very different concepts – one is harsh and negative, the other friendly and positive. To make this distinction clear, we often refer to “positive discipline” to emphasize the difference between discipline and punishment.


Why punishment DOESN’T work:

1. Punishment focuses on bringing about an external change of behavior. But your child’s behavior is usually internally motivated. So punishment will work temporarily – your child will stop doing “x” behavior. But the internal motivation that caused them to BEGIN “x” behavior will resurface somewhere else.

2. Punishment is imposed from without and operates on the basis that “might makes right”. “I’m the parent, I’m in charge. You have to do this, or…” is implied, even if not directly stated. What happens when you child outgrows your authority and no longer responds to the punishments you’ve been using? What reason do they have not to do “x” behavior then? In parenting, we’re raising our kids mainly for their own future; we want what we teach them now to make a difference then. For that to happen, children’s behavior can’t be continued by fear of punishment, which will disappear as the child grows older.

3. Punishments usually associate arbitrary negative consequences with a behavior to discourage the child from doing it. Since the consequences are contrived by the parents, they don’t really discourage the child from “x”. They just discourage them from doing “x” when the parent is around, and places a heavy strain on the relationship.

4. Our kids learn from what we do. If we punish them and place arbitrary consequences on them, and uses a “might makes right” approach, they, in turn, will begin to act in a similar manner with people smaller or weaker than they are (think: little siblings).

5. Punishment makes kids feel rejected by their parents, the first people they turn to for love. At best, this destroys a naturally trusting relationship; at worst, it can lead to anger, resentment, and other emotional disturbances.

But, while punishment doesn’t work, (positive) discipline DOES.

1. Discipline motivates the child from WITHIN. Yes, certain external behaviors must be stopped, started or altered, but the change has to come from inside the child to be effective. If your child understands deep down WHY it’s not OK to do “x”, they will avoid “x” now and in the future, whether their parents are in the room or not, because they KNOW why “x” is wrong.

2. Discipline focuses mainly on the GOOD. Yes, sometimes we have to discipline our kids by diverting them from unacceptable behaviors, but most of the time discipline involves guiding them TOWARD what they may do and building them up when they are succeeding.

3. Discipline focuses on natural consequences. Rather than establishing an arbitrary consequence and becoming the “enemy” (imposing a punishment from without), the parent guides the child through accepting the natural consequences of their behavior. The child must take responsibility, but you become a support helping them face the consequences they chose.

4. Discipline strengthens the parent-child relationship. By encouraging positive behavior, consistently upholding set expectations and actively supporting the child as they learn how to face life, positive discipline builds a relationship of trust.

5. Discipline fosters positive communication. By talking with your child about how you feel toward a given situation AND how they feel, your child learns how to communicate effectively, and can rely on communication as an effective solution in many instances. These communication skills will help your child throughout their life, not only in personal relationships, but also in professional dealings.

6. Discipline helps a child learn about themselves. They learn their own limitations, but also their abilities. They learn how to discern right from wrong and judge different situations. They learn how to reach their goals.

7. Discipline actively involves the child. By requiring them to participating in analyzing problems and developing solutions, it strengthens their problem solving and other critical thinking skills.

In conclusion, while punishment might produce an instant external change, in the long run, discipline helps our kids much more. So, stay positive!

6 thoughts on “Punishment Vs. Discipline

  1. This is exactly what we try to accomplish with our three little ones. It works wonders. The most amazing thing is that it helps the child WANT to be good — even when we’re not around.

    • Exactly :)! That’s what I love about them too! It gives them what THEY need for THEM to grow, love and rightly govern their own behavior from within…

  2. I love most of this article: it clearly outlines the dangers of punishment and the benefits of discipline. But saying that “Punishment DOES NOT WORK” is not accurate. Punishment should always be a last resort – as a stop-gap to protect children from themselves until they can fully understand the discipline approach. And punishment should be used with fear and trembling; learning how to discern when your child understands the discipline and when they can only understand the primal modes of punishment takes a lot of effort, but as the article shows I think that effort is worthwhile. In the end, of course, love rules over all.

    • Thanks for your comment! I agree that perhaps “punishment does not work” should not be a blanket statement, but whether or not it works can only be defined based on your objective. If your objective is an immediate stop to a certain behavior, yes, punishment can work. But in resorting to it, you can be setting yourself up for lots of other issues, so does it really work in the long run? I still don’t think so. I do agree there need to be clear consequences, and strong consequences as a last resort, but that doesn’t mean they need to be arbitrary ones. Using discipline as an approach doesn’t mean no consequences or easy consequences. It simply means that the consequences you use are logical, as opposed to arbitrary. Why would someone every choose arbitrary negative consequences instead of logical ones that follow the offense? And yes, very young children don’t understand the logic of discipline, but they don’t understand the logic of punishment either; with very young children they really need to be distracted, redirected, etc. It pertains much more to the parents to help keep them out of trouble because they don’t know and aren’t accountable for what they’re doing. If a baby is punished, they honestly don’t know what they’ve done, so they’re not learning anything other than having negative emotions and trying not to displease the parents, but they’re not really learning about behavior. By the time the child is 2 or 3, they still haven’t reached the age of reason, but they’re old enough to start recognizing the difference between a firm but logical consequence, and an arbitrary punishment. Yes, the punishment will move them to stop a certain behavior, but it will also already be going down the line of negative motivation out of fear. Please understand that, in terms of this post, I’m not defining punishment as “negative consequence” ; plenty of disciplinary consequences are negative too. The difference is the arbitrariness vs. the logic behind the action taken. In the end, every parent has to make the decision for their own child and if a parent decides that in certain situations their child will only make a needed change if “punished”, that’s their discretion, but that would be a rare exception, not something to be addressed as part of the norm. Again, just my opinion.

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