While meeting with a group of moms last week, several asked the same pressing question about discipline and punishment.  They wanted to know the difference between the two.  I answered that question by telling a brief story:

It was a hot summer day and Mom was excited to take her two young boys to the beach.  About mid-day, six-year-old Joey started throwing sand at his brother.  In response, Mom said sternly, “If you don’t quit throwing sand, I’ll give you a good reason to stop!”  Within minutes, Joey was throwing sand again. Frustrated, Mom yelled, “That’s it!  Get yourself over here right now, young man!  You are ruining our time.  Why can’t you be like your brother and act nice?”  Then, Mom slapped Joey firmly on the wrist and said, “Now, stop it!”  She then proceeded to give him the silent treatment.

The goal of punishment

Knowing the difference between discipline and punishment is important because both have very different goals and outcomes.  For starters, the goal of punishment is to stop unwanted behavior.  Punishment is typically done by imposing physical or emotional pain to force a child to stop any unwanted behavior(s).  In this story, Mom expressed her disapproval with the hope that Joey would stop throwing sand at his brother. She was also trying to hold him accountable for his poor choices.  When punishment is employed, be it verbal or non-verbal, it tells kids what not to do.  It also tells them what to avoid.  How did Joey’s mom use it?  See for yourself, “If you don’t quit throwing sand, I’ll give you a good reason to stop!”  The message here is pretty simple:  “Stop it!  Otherwise, you will get a painful spanking!”

The goal of discipline

In contrast, the goal of discipline is to teach.  Instead of telling kids what not to do, discipline tells (and shows) kids what to do.  Here’s what I mean.  The term “discipline” comes from the Latin word that means “to teach” or “to mentor” or “to disciple.”  Therefore, “to discipline” Joey means to see him as your disciple or a student where your job is to educate him, especially in matters of conduct and character formation.  Parents who use discipline over punishment tend to train, teach, or condition children so they will learn pro-social behaviors.  In other words, what to do rather than what not to do (punishment) in social situations.

If Joey’s mom employed discipline, she would have challenged him to think, act, and feel a certain way.  In addition, she would have stayed in touch with Joey’s developmental needs like self-esteem, emotional connection, and cognitive development.  For example, she could have said something like, “It seems to me that you want to play with your brother, but it’s hard to ask him.  Sweetie, what might happen if you use your words and ask your brother to play together instead of throwing sand at him?”  (Notice how mom is expressing compassion and empathy for her young disciple as she is challenging him to adhere to her ideas about pro-social behaviors).

The difference between discipline and punishment

Keep in mind that using discipline and punishment are both needed as we parent.  Sometimes we simply don’t have the time to slow down and walk children through a significant lesson.  Sometimes physical harm is imminent so we employ punishment instead of discipline.  For example, when kids throw sand at a brother’s face, try to touch a hot stove, or run into the street your best option might only be to yell “Stop!”

So, did Joey’s mom use discipline or punishment?  It’s pretty clear that she used punishment.  This story illustrates that using discipline over punishment involves a keen eye, patience, and parents who are calm.  It means seeing your child as a disciple (who needs nurturing and guidance) instead of a bratty kid who just needs to behave.  It also shows how frustrating a child’s unwanted behaviors can be for any parent.  It shows us that the challenge (for every parent) is to feel intense frustration and yet manage it well.  In other words, not allow that frustration to drive or govern how you manage children.  Otherwise, you end up saying things like “stop throwing sand,” instead of trying to help Joey learn pro-social behaviors like asking his brother to play with him.  The good news is that when you manage intense frustration well, you are far more likely to employ discipline and teach kids what you want them to do.

Both discipline and punishment help stop unwanted behavior:  punishment typically stops the behavior immediately and discipline takes more time and patience.  Keep in mind that when sand is being thrown at a child’s face, using discipline over punishment can put children in harm’s way.  It can have a negative impact on the safety needed in the moment.  At the same time, using punishment over discipline can undermine a child’s intense need to belong and feel supported by parents.

A Point to Ponder

Punishment is not to be viewed as “bad” and discipline viewed as “good.”  Discipline and punishment have their place in effective parenting.  Both can rupture the parent-child relationship if not used appropriately.  And both require parents who are calm and in touch with the unique situation.

Stay Tuned…

In the next series of articles, I’m going to talk more about the difference between using punishment and discipline.  In addition, you are going to learn about the five punishing agents that Joey’s mom used and how each one can impact his emotional development over time.


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Steve Cuffari

Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive.         read more about Steve Cuffari here...

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