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Discipline Vs. Punishment: Know the Difference

Katharine is a former psychotherapist and has worked with adult individuals as well as children, parents, and families.

Learn the difference between punishment and discipline for a better parent-child relationship.

Learn the difference between punishment and discipline for a better parent-child relationship.

What Is the difference Between Discipline and Punishment?

Every parent wants to have a child who is calm, reasonable, and obedient. No one likes a spoiled child who throws tantrums, cries, or pouts when they don't get what they want. No one wants an unruly teenager who is constantly breaking rules, arguing, or talking back. The key to avoiding these childhood behaviors lies in both the relationship between parent and child and the means of discipline you use.

Discipline, Not Punishment

Notice I said "discipline," not punishment. There is a difference! Punishment, for the most part, does not work. If it does work, it tends to be only temporary and does not help the child learn how to behave. Discipline, on the other hand, is very effective, especially if the parent-child relationship is on solid ground to begin with.

Discipline comes from the same Latin root as the word "disciple," ones who are "taught." Discipline means "to teach" not "to punish." It should be the goal of every parent to teach their child the behaviors that are needed to be a happy child and, eventually, a successful adult. It is not the parent's job to threaten, bribe, spank or impose punishments on their children in order to force compliance with their rules. Punishment is for felons and dogs, not children.

The Parent-Child Relationship

The attitude of the parent towards the child is crucial here. The parent should view the raising of her child as a partnership. You and your child want the same thing—a happy child. You're on the same team, working together to teach the child the behaviors that will be most conducive to her happiness and ability to function in society. You are not your child's adversary, constantly working against their will to bend them to yours. The relationship between parent and child is vital to the parent's ability to discipline their child.

If your child is young, you have time to build this relationship early, but even if you're dealing with teens, it is never too late to start your relationship anew. Your interactions with your child should be loving, firm when necessary, and holding to the idea that the two of you are on the same team, working toward the same goals. Remember, you should be partners, not adversaries! An adversarial relationship will get you nothing but headaches and ever-increasing rebellion from your child. If you feel like your relationship with your children is a "you against them" one, you're on the wrong track. You will need to reverse this trend in order to use proper discipline to teach your child how to behave. An attitude of mutual respect between parent and child is needed for discipline to work.

Mutual Respect

Yes, I said mutual respect! You teach respect for others, including yourself, by treating the child with respect! If you yell at your child, threaten him and call him names, you can expect the same level of disrespect to be directed back at you. Remember, your child is a person, a unique human being who deserves to be respected, just as adults do. Treat him with respect, and you are far more likely to be afforded the same by him.

Natural Consequences

So how does "discipline" work, where punishment won't? Well, with discipline, you are going to (1) teach your child to problem solve, and (2) teach her which behaviors are expected by letting her suffer the consequences of her actions when she misbehaves. That is, the natural consequences, not made-up consequences that you impose as punishment. The only punishment a child should ever get is that which occurs naturally as a result of their behavior. This may take some thought and creativity at times, when consequences aren't easily identified, but with practice, you can become quite good at this kind of discipline.

by gracey

by gracey

Example of Problem Solving and Natural Consequences

Let's use a scenario as an example here. Your eight-year-old refuses to get up in time to get ready for the school bus. Day after day, he drags himself out of bed at the last minute, doesn't have time for breakfast, and half the time ends up missing the bus and you have to drive him to school.

It's time to have a talk. You start by making a statement about what is important or necessary. "Sam, it is important that you get to school on time. It's also important that you are prepared for school, and that includes eating a healthy breakfast." Then you state the problem, in a NON-BLAMING way! Remember, you want your child to feel that you are on his "side", not his adversary! "It seems like you are having a hard time getting up on time." Then you ask a question. "Why do you think it is that you have such trouble getting up in the morning?" This approach not only shows respect for a child by pointing out a "problem" that the child has rather than just blaming him, and it teaches problem-solving by having him think about what the cause may be.

Chances are he'll just say, "I dunno" at first. Don't take that for an answer! Here is an example of how the rest of the talk might go:

"Well, let's think about this. When you try to wake up, what is it that makes it hard for you?"

"I'm sleepy"

"Hmmm. I wonder if you're getting enough sleep. What do you think we can do to help you to get up on time?"

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"I dunno"

"Well, you have been staying up until about 9:30, watching that show that you like so much. Maybe we should try saving your show on the DVR and getting you to bed at 8:30. You can watch the show when you finish your homework in the afternoon. Think that will work?"

"No, I like staying up till 9:30"

"Hmmm.... well then, what do you think will solve this problem?"

"If I had a radio alarm, that would help. The radio would just start and I'd hear music and it would make me want to wake up."

"Great idea! Let's try that! We can go to WalMart tomorrow after school and get you one. Let's keep my idea in mind as Plan B, in case the radio doesn't help, ok?"


You're on the Same Team

This exchange between parent and child demonstrates how the parent should be on the same "team" as the child. You are problem-solving together. It shows respect for the child by being willing to try his idea (even if you don't think it will work!). It also tells the child that you are concerned about this problem, and are not going to just let it go on.

As stated by my favorite parenting coaches in their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk: "When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from solving their own problems." (Authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have several books on parenting that were my Bibles when raising my children.) It is vital to encourage your child to solve the dilemma himself. That doesn't mean allowing him to just do what he wants about it and forget it, rather it means acting as "coach" and leading him through problem-solving steps, including yours if his don't work!

If the radio idea does not work, then you explain to the child that it's time to try Plan B. Having given him a chance to try his own idea first, chances are you won't get as much resistance as you would have at first. You have to know the limits, though. If he still says no to going to bed earlier, you need to be kind but firm. "Yes, Sam, we need to try this earlier bedtime now. It's important for you to be able to get up on time." (notice the use of "we".. you're on the same team!)

And what if he doesn't go to bed at 8:30? Well, the TV goes off, for one thing. You had said that the DVR could pick up the show, so there is no need for the TV to be on after bedtime. If the child still doesn't get up on time, it's time to take this a step further. This is where the consequences come in.

Natural Consequences Rather Than Punishment

Let's say you have to take Sam to school twice that week. When it comes to allowance day, you hand him $3 instead of his usual $5.

Sam: How come I only get three dollars?

Mom: Well, Sam, I had to take you to school twice this week. Taking you to school uses gas, and gas costs money. From now on, I'm going to have to charge you $1 each time I have to drive you to school.

Mind you, the attitude that you say this with is all-important. It should be matter-of-fact and calm, no anger or "I told you so" in your voice at all. You're just stating the way things are. You're not withholding his allowance to "punish" him, you need it for gas to take him to school. It's that simple. Sam will likely not be happy about that. This is your chance to go back to the drawing board with him, while he is most likely to be cooperative.

Mom: Sam, I'd like to help you figure out some way to get you to be able to be up on time. We tried the radio, and it doesn't seem to be helping. You have been staying awake on purpose until 9:30 because you don't want to go to bed earlier. I'd like to help you solve this problem, but I'm out of ideas. How about you? I'd much rather be able to give you your whole allowance, but if I have to keep driving to school then I need the gas money.

With an exchange like this, especially if this type of discipline is the norm, Sam will be very likely to accept the earlier bedtime. Very different from just saying "Fine, you can't get up? You're going to bed at 8:30, not a second later!!" That kind of punishment is just you imposing your will on the child. It doesn't show respect for him, nor does it teach him how to solve problems by himself.

More Examples

This approach of positive discipline with natural consequences can be carried out with children of all ages, with a few tweaks for different levels of maturity.

Example #1

Your teenager borrows your car and promises to be home by 10. She rolls in at 11:15 with no good excuse. Next time she asks to borrow the car, your reply is matter of fact and calm.

"Sorry Annie. I thought I could trust you to come home on time, but you didn't. I can't let people who I can't trust use my car."

She'll beg and plead. You say, "I'm sorry Annie, but I just don't feel good about you taking my car today."

The next weekend, you give her another chance. It's likely she'll be home on time!

Example #2

Your 4-year-old throws a tantrum at another child's birthday party. The next week he gets an invitation to another party.

"I'm sorry, Nicholas, but I don't think you should go to this party. The last party we went to, you had a huge tantrum and it ruined Aaron's party. I think we should skip this one."

You'll get a huge amount of grief for it! But you stay calm and say, "It's too bad, Nicholas, but children who throw tantrums should not go to parties. Maybe next time you get an invitation, we'll be able to try it again, but not this time" Your attitude is calm, sympathetic toward your child, but firm. Nicholas is not going this time. Chances are good that the next time he attends a party, he will control his behavior better.

Be sure that your child understands the consequence of his actions, but do not belabor the point! Once your meaning is clear, stop talking about it. Change the subject, walk away, whatever you have to do, but do not argue with your child about it! You are showing them a firm resolve, something which, believe it or not, your child really wants from you. A parent who is in control of their actions helps children learn to control themselves. It makes a child feel safe.

by audbliss

by audbliss

Be Consistent

One more important point on discipline. You must be consistent and you must not give in to the child, once you've set a boundary. Sam should not be able to watch TV past nine, no matter how much he whines! Annie should not be given the keys that night, no matter how she pleads! Nicholas should not go to this particular party, no matter how much grief you get. So, don't come to a conclusion as to what you are going to do without first thinking it out and making sure you will be able to follow through. Going back on something you said only teaches the child that you'll give in if they push you enough. This starts a vicious cycle of bad behavior and conflict, and you don't want to go there!

Good discipline also means self-discipline on your part! Keeping to what you say can be a pain in the neck at times, and it takes effort, but it is a vital part of parenting which, if done properly, will help your child learn expected behaviors so she will be a happy child and a successful adult.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

Criss from Southern California on November 17, 2012:

A parent can have both control and respect from a child and a child who respects their parent, often trusts that parent as well. You have to teach your kids HOW to make the right choices and explain to them why those choices are the correct one. It is important to talk to your children and make sure that they know you love them. Encourage communication. Letting your child make decisions that are not the right decision teaches them nothing, except that there is always another chance to try to make the right decision; INSTEAD of teaching the child to weigh the options and make the right decision the first time.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on November 17, 2012:

SpeakUpStandOut, yes, everyone has a view on child-rearing and discipline. Of course it is a parent's job to make sure a child gets enough sleep, etc, but it is how they go about making sure that happens that is the issue here. I do not advocate "punishing" a child at all, but rather using each difficult situation that arises as an opportunity to teach a child to solve problems for himself, which is, after all, what needs to be accomplished before he reaches adulthood. I do not propose letting children have all the control at all, but rather teaching them to control themselves. You cannot accomplish this by simply laying down the law and leaving it at that. Yes, they need to be guided toward the right choices, but simply to dictate their choices to them is unproductive.

By the way, I used this method of discipline (not punishment) with my three children, after trying the other way for the first several years of parenting and finding that it did not work well. All three of my children have made excellent decisions in their lives, never got into any trouble, excelled in school, were always well-mannered and respectful, and are now highly successful and happy adults! Using a traditional punishment model where the parent is simply a dictator is what invites rebellion and limits the child's ability to learn to discipline themselves.

Criss from Southern California on November 15, 2012:

I suppose everyone has their ideals of parenting, but it is a parents duty to make sure their child gets up ontime for school. Punishing a child because you haven't properly done your job as a parent seems like an error in judgement. I agree that children need to learn responsibility and consequences, but I just think your post suggests going about it the wrong way. Children should have choices, there is a right choice and a wrong choice and kids need to learn to make the right choices. I think the kind of parenting you are suggesting is the reason why we have so many kids out of control; kids who think they can do whatever it is they want. Kids who think they are in control; become out of control. Kids need structure.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on November 15, 2012:

SpeakUpStandOut, I think you miss the point! Asserting your "power" as a parent is exactly what I'm trying to get away from! How is the child supposed to learn to be powerful themselves, as a person, if you are wielding yours over him? No, it is always best to give a real choice, if possible. The scenario you gave gives the child no choice. It's your way or the highway. While it can sometimes come to this, and should in many cases, it is always most helpful to give the child a chance to do things his way. The step with the radio allows him to learn to identify a problem and take steps to solve it. A HUGE learning experience that he would miss if you simply lay down the law! Notice that I said if his "plan" fails, you should insist on trying "plan B", which was your idea! But at least you have provided him with a learning experience, and showed him that you are on "his side", not an adversary or a dictator! And about the gas - it is not extreme at all! The point here is to make sure your child suffers "natural consequences" of his actions. It does cost money to drive the child to school (especially these days!), so it is not unreasonable to deduct from his allowance when he makes this necessary. Mind you, all of these strategies are tactics which may or may not work at first. It's trial and error, keeping the principles mentioned in mind. It is, I believe, a parent's job to have to work at effective discipline, which as I've stated, means TEACHING, not dictating. Punishment is counter-productive, and the child is not likely to learn much from it, including a post-punishment "talk". Focus remains, for him, on the punishment itself and related anger and resentment.

Criss from Southern California on November 14, 2012:

Although the dialogue with the child about bedtime is interesting, I think that parents need to assert their power and tell the child they have two choices, either record the show and watch it in the afternoon so they can go to bed earlier, or go to bed earlier anyway and miss the show. This still gives the child a choice, but does not let them believe they are in control, because children are not the boss even though that is the way most children in america are raised. With the gas situation, I think that this is a little extreme. Charging a child for taking them to school when you the parent are not making sure the child is getting enough rest is not teaching the child anything. Parents have certain responsibilities and making sure their children get enough rest and get up in time in the morning are some of those responsibilities. I am all for parent-child relationships and explaining things to your kids, like after they are punished, talking to them about why they were punished and making sure they understand what they did wrong. I also believe in making sure after a child has been punished that you hug and kiss them so they know you still love them, you just do not like their behavior. I do, however, agree with the second to last paragraph, consistency is key.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 20, 2012:

You're right, Johan, and that is such a shame! Thank-you for reading and commenting!

Johan Smulders from East London, South Africa on May 20, 2012:

Your advice about teaching children makes so much sense. The trouble is that most parents don't have the time, patience and skill needed and in fact have handed over the responsibility to others for this important task!

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 17, 2012:

Aviannovice, you most certainly are correct! Never thought about it that way! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 17, 2012:

Thank-you for reading and commenting, mjboomer! Yes, I know about parenting styles. I believe that any parenting style should start with respect for the child and a sense of parent being on the child's team.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 17, 2012:

Problem solving goes hand-in-hand with logic. So what are we teaching here? Effectively, both. Bet you dollars to donuts, if this approach is used, your child will fare better at geometry and word problems. Why? Because he/she learned logic growing up.

Mike Elzner from Oregon on May 17, 2012:

Love Your Hub Sparrowlet, I appriciate the distinction between discipline and punishment...understanding ther are consquences to behavior through learned experiencees produce positive results where punishments typically fail. Have you looked at parenting styles?

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 17, 2012:

Yes, ASchwartz, children have LONG memories! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

ASchwartz from Kentucky on May 17, 2012:

Really great advice. You're spot on about not giving in. I've learned the hard way if I give in once he will never let me forget about it.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on May 16, 2012:

This hub was so thoroughly thought out. I enjoyed your examples. Just reviewing them and knowing I survived bringing up children, made me so grateful to have succeeded at some of this -- some of the time. I don't envy anyone who is going through it right now, but fortunately love does strengthen a mother's resolve to try to teach and discipline rather than give up and punish.

As you have mentioned in your hub, it's really hard when the child starts to whine -- and then continues to whine -- or when the teenager wants the car keys and promises to do better the next time but doesn't want the intervening discipline.

Katharine L Sparrow (author) from Massachusetts, USA on May 16, 2012:

thanks, bookmom, and thanks for stopping by!

thebookmom from Nebraska on May 16, 2012:

Really good hub on a really important topic. You are right, discipline means to teach and that is exactly the job of a parent. As with any kind of teaching, relationship is a vital part of the success of the endeavor. Well done.

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