Discipline and Punishment are not the same thing


We all know that kids need discipline but are we clear on the difference between discipline and punishment. I hear people mixing them up all the time and that includes parenting educators. So today, we are going to talk about the differences because it matters.

After you read this article take a look at the description of my e-parenting mini guide. And while you’re on my website check out my other books available in both print and digital versions.

Are Discipline and Punishment the Same Thing?

Discipline and punishment are completely different but I hear the terms used interchangeably all the time.

Punishment is about causing pain or discomfort in an effort to change behaviour. We hope he will change his actions in order to avoid pain or discomfort. And it often works, but only in the short term. It works as long as it’s uncomfortable enough to dissuade him from repeating the misbehaviour. So maybe, if the night we take away the TV privileges he misses his favourite program, he might think twice about his misbehaviour. But probably not. He’ll be thinking it’s unfair and he’ll be angry with you who did this to him.

With punishment the motivation is external. He learns that his parents will make his life miserable if he doesn’t follow the rules, but he doesn’t learn why those rules exist. He might learn to be sneaky so he won’t get caught, and that he can misbehave when nobody’s watching. We’ve all heard about teens who throw parties as soon as their parents are away.

Discipline is not about pain or punishment, nor about revenge or retribution. Discipline is about teaching, guiding and training. When we discipline children we are teaching them the difference between right and wrong. We’re helping them to learn about the consequences of their actions.

Consequences in another term we tend to mis-use. Consequences are not a nasty punishment to be dealt out to a misbehaving child in the hopes that he learns his lesson. Consequences are actually simply the result of what went on before. When kids learn about consequences they start to think before they act. They ask themselves, what would happen if I did this? What are the consequences of my behaviour?

One parenting coach suggests that the consequence for misbehaviour is to remove something that is unhealthy or unnecessary. So, a child leaves his bike lying on the driveway and you tell him he cannot have dessert tonight. What does he learn from that?

It is in no way connected to bike safety or security, but is simply an arbitrary response. It is really a punishment disguised as a consequence. It is designed to make the child learn by suffering. The hope is that if he’s miserable because of the negative consequence, he will change his behaviour.

Discipline, however, is concerned with teaching. The consequence therefore needs to be connected to the child’s behavior. In other words, if I eat a good lunch the consequence would be that I would not be hungry.

The best form of discipline or teaching is to simply allow nature to take its course. What will happen naturally based on the child’s behaviour? If he decides to dawdle in the morning, he will be late for school and his teacher or school principal will determine the consequences. And he will learn that there are reasons for being on time. On the other hand if he leaves his bike on the driveway, it may be stolen or run over. Or maybe, nothing will happen.

You may decide those are not acceptable results in order for him to learn to take responsibility for the care of his bike. So, you let him know that having a bike is a privilege and carries with it responsibilities. By not looking after his bike he has lost the use of it for three days.

Once we realize that the whole point of discipline is to teach our children how to behave rather than to cause them grief, it all makes sense.

When punishment works, it works because the child is uncomfortable and unhappy and learns that when he breaks he rules his parents will cause him to suffer. This may change his behaviour, but has he learned why the rule exists? I think not.

When discipline works, it works because the child learns right from wrong and why he should make the choice to follow the rules.

It’s not just about changing behaviour; it’s about teaching kids to internalize the rules. It’s about helping them build their own moral code to live by in their adult years.

Which do you want for your kids?

Check out Kathy’s newest e-parenting mini guide.

Vive la Différence: Raising Children with Different Temperaments.

I have always known that each child is a unique individual. I looked at my two who are as different as night and day. Then I consider my siblings and we are a textbook example of different.

But, now I have three grandchildren, all the same age and the differences from their births has been striking. Just before they were born I was thinking about the two movies about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and this also caused me to think about the differences of people who live together.

The result is the e-parenting mini guideVive la Difference: Raising Children with Different Temperaments. 

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P.U.R.E. Parenting.

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These make up the framework of any resources that will come from Parenting Today. These four pillars are the essential ingredients for raising healthy children who will develop into capable young men and women.



Posted in Discipline, Preschoolers, School-Age, Teens, Toddlers | 3 Comments

3 Responses to Discipline and Punishment are not the same thing

  1. Thanks for making this distinction! So many people, not just parents, make mistake of thinking discipline and punishment are the same. I like to think discipline is following the leader. If I study philosophy I might be a disciple of Thomas Aquinas or Kant! These different courses of study are rightly called disciplines. Why do we call Christians Disciples? Are they following Christ, perhaps?

    If I want my kids to do the right thing, I must do the right thing. Kids see and emulate everything we do! Do I leave my shoes in the doorway, and my bike on the driveway? If so, I can expect to see my kids’ shoes and bikes lying next to mine. How is my language? How much do I “bend” the truth before I called it by its real name, lying?
    Parents lead, kids follow, for good or bad. That’s the way discipline works.
    Thanks for all you do Lynn, and have a great weekend! Par

  2. Linda Brauer says:

    We need to teach children to Express, not Repress, so they won’t be more afraid of being punished than letting us know when they’re in trouble. They have how to learn to trust their gut and think for themselves: “Mom. Sorry to wake you up, but could you come pick me up at Coach Stevens’ house? I thought it seemed kinda weird he invited me over after helping him clean up the locker room, but now I do NOT want to join him in his hot tub!” The late Jane Nelsen, Ph.D., said, “A good consequence is Related, Respectful, and Reasonable, so they don’t become Resentful, Revengeful, or Retreat (and wonder why they even try). The 3Rs helped me, in the heat of the moment, when raising my own kids!

  3. Hi Kathy, I am totally in sync with your definitions. I also feel frustrated when parents say “I’m disciplining my child” when they are taking something away or using another form of inflicted pain to get compliance. I talk about the difference between discipline and punishment as well on my website. It is extremely hard to shift a world view.
    Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline is very clear on the difference similar to your view. Perhaps if we keep talking about the difference, people will hear?
    thanks for sharing

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