Discipline vs. Punishment: Know the Difference
So, what IS the difference?
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 he doesn't get what he wants. 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 that you use.
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", as in the followers of Jesus in the Bible - the ones who were "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 to their rules. (See article on spanking!)
Definition of Discipline
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 you child's adversary, constantly working against your child's 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 adverserial 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.
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.
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.
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?"
"Hmmm. I wonder if you're getting enough sleep. What do you think we can do to help you to get up on time?"
"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?"
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.
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 bed time. 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.
Lets say you have to take Sam to school twice that week. When it comes to allowance day, you hand the child $3 instead of his usual $5. (See article about allowance for kids)
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 for himself.
Discipline vs Punishment Discussion
These books were my Bibles as a parent!
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.
- 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!
- 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.
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 9, 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 be a happy child and a successful adult.
* Learn about spanking as discipline.
*Teach Table Manners to your children!
© Katharine L. Sparrow, MSW
*Katharine Sparrow has worked as a psychotherapist with children and families for many years, focusing on parenting issues and behavior problems.
More by this Author
Your child is swearing, what do you do? What kind of discipline works, and is it ever okay to curse?
Is spanking as discipline the best method? Read about punishment and disciplining your child.
Explore the lives of these five lesbian women in history and answer the question: were they, or weren't they?