Punishment is NOT Discipline


In our last newsletter I spoke about the research surrounding the question of spanking. If you missed that and want to read it just click here.

After taking a look at the research the next question is about child discipline. Discipline is not punishment, so we’ll take a look at what is discipline and what is punishment. Bottom line, hitting kids is not discipline and carries with it risk factors. It also doesn’t work. Kids need discipline, they never need or deserve punishment.

Let’s take a look at the differences between discipline and punishment and how we can raise our kids to take responsibility for their actions.

 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 behavior. We hope he will change his actions in order to avoid pain or discomfort. And it sometimes 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 or he loses his screen time. 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 behavior.

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 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 the 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 behavior; 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?


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One Response to Punishment is NOT Discipline

  1. Lorraine Barner says:

    Thank you, Kathy, for your ever insightful comments. As a retired Early childhood Educator, it was often my role to help parents understand the meaning of “discipline”. If one considers the root of the word “disciple”, to guide or teach it is far from “punishment”, as you have made clear in your article. Thank you for your continued pledge to abolish corporal punishment of our children. In offering your intelligent and practical parenting books and courses, you give parents the tools they need to raise children in an environment void of harsh punishments and fear.

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