Positive Child Guidance: A Look at Discipline vs Punishment

The following is an excerpt from Parenting with Positive Guidance:

Consider these two words: Discipline and Punishment.

I’m not trying to argue over semantics here, but I would like to offer a change in perspective. To many people, the two words above carry the same meaning. But let’s think about that here.

Punishment is something that happens to someone. Discipline is something found in someone. 
It’s a quality. Something that has been fostered and developed. When a person has discipline they have the inner fortitude to make right choices, to do what needs to be done.   
 
 Children aren’t born with this discipline. They aren’t born knowing they shouldn’t take toys away form other kids, color on the walls, or flail in the middle of the aisles of the grocery store when we say we won’t be buying the Super Crunchy Sugar Bombs. 
 As young children they have a limited – but growing – amount of impulse control and a thin slice of social grace.
 
But they are growing and developing, and they can learn. Consider a new baby whose arms flail wildly until, over time, the baby develops enough control to generate purposeful movements. Similarly, it takes time for preschoolers to develop the ability to move from acting on wild impulses to making controlled, thoughtful choices.
 
 As I mentioned before, self-control and discipline are learned behaviors. As with any learned skill, there will be mistakes along the way and some steep learning curves. It’s our job to help and teach along the way. When a child struggles to learn to ride a bike, we take some extra time to clarify the process and coach her through.
 
We teach social skills in the same way: give extra support and extra practice, clarifying and coaching until that skill becomes second-nature.
 
Whether it’s riding a bike or making friends, mastering new skills takes time and multiple failed attempts before a child meets with success. When we remember that young children are learning and growing, and that there is a developmental aspect to their behavior (not just spite), it makes it easier to step back and keep the proper perspective.  Perceived patience is actually a byproduct of increased understanding and appropriate expectations
 
  When a person says a child “needs to be disciplined” they are referring to the fact that the child appears to lack that inner discipline. But you can’t force that on a child in one instance. And so the meaning of that phrase seems to evolve into a more actionable meaning, “that child needs to be punished“.
 
  
Punishment is an easy reaction. It doesn’t require much thought. Its aim is merely to make an experience unpleasant. As a childcare center director shared with me in a discussion, “Punishment hurts. Whether it’s physically or emotionally, the intention of punishment is to hurt the child.” She recognized that this approach does little to instill real discipline.
 
 A young child often sees little or no connection between their action and an adult’s hurtful reaction. The relationship between the action and the punishment becomes convoluted and distorted. Discipline comes from an understanding of choices and consequences, not force, punishment, and pain.  
 
 Let your focus be on guiding your children to develop actual discipline. This is not the fleeting good behavior that can be bought and bribed; this takes work. It requires effort, and time, and being present to guide a child to learn from his mistakes and not simply be punished for them.When the focus is on punishment as a reaction to improper behavior, we are only teaching the child not to “get caught” being “bad“.
 
 When we choose proactive discipline, we teach moral decision-making. Instead of trying to control our children, we teach them to control themselves. Rather than governing out of anger, we guide out of love.
 
That doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger. Parents are humans after all, and we tend to feel anger when an entire pitcher of orange juice comes splattering down to the floor during a tantrum. But when we react out of anger – shouting, spanking, throwing adult-sized tantrums ourselves – the teachable moment for creating real discipline is lost.

Read more in Parenting with Positive Guidance.

Top photo by Howie Le.

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15 Comments

Filed under Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

15 Responses to Positive Child Guidance: A Look at Discipline vs Punishment

  1. Thank you for sharing. This line really stuck out, “When we choose proactive discipline, we teach moral decision-making. Instead of trying to control our children, we teach them to control themselves.” This is my number one goal as a parent. I hope your eBook sales go well.

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  4. Leigh

    I like it, well written and thorough. I will however like to disagree with “…children see little or no connection between their actions, and the adult’s…”. My children as young as 2 or 3 can explain to you why they were sent to time out, or punished. Too many people discredit small children, they are very smart!

  5. I love the way you lift the curtain on a word that has acquired a new and negative meaning. No, ‘discipline’ doesn’t mean ‘punishment’ (if you look at the word, it’s based on the same root as ‘disciple’- think about it!) any more than ‘diet’ means ‘deprivation’.

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  9. This is SUCH an important issue and one i’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

    It seems to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that the way you are using the term discipline in this article is “self-discipline” as in self-control, having control over your impulses. In other words, as a noun, not a verb.
    To punish someone and to discipline someone are, whether we like it or not, in today’s culture synonymous (as you point out.) As a matter of fact, webster’s dictionary lists as the first definition of disicpline, “punishment” and the second it says is OBSOLETE (antiquated, out of date) and that is “instruction.” Many who advocate for what is sometimes called “positive discipline” think of the word in terms of instruction, even though in our culture in 2012 it literally does NOT MEAN THAT ANYMORE. Therefore what one is actually saying when they say “positive discipline” is “positive punishment” and that is inaccurate. People who advocate for positive parenting (that goes by many names) guide their children, listen to them, try to find what caused the behavior, set limits firmly but gently, work with kids to find solutions etc. all of that may result (hopefully) in self-discipline but it is not discipline resulting in self-discipline it is what it is “guiding” teaching, working with, talking about, boundary-setting, empathy etc. we do NOT need to call that stuff discipline, just call it what it is. I think the positive discipline crowd just may use the term DISCIPLINE to appeal to those who do punish via time outs, threats, taking away toys and priveleges and hitting their children (that is to say trying to control their behavior via fear) to assure them that they still have the upper hand and that things will not be out of control. If people feel that need to be strategic, than I can understand that argument however, I don’t agree with it.

    This is a complicated topic. And I think that it really needs this kind of discussion and reevaluation. I appreciate this post and hope to have further discussion.

    Thank you!

    Jennifer Lehr
    goodjobandotherhtings.com

  10. Erich

    I agree with you that we parents ought to teach discipline proactively in our children, but thatvdoesn’t mean there isn’t a place for punishment. Because here’s the thing–in the real world, people are not proactively disciplined by the authorities. I think is very important to teach our children that if they mess up, they will have to pay for it somehow. The key is communicating to them why they are being punished and letting them know that if they stop doing the thing that got them in trouble, they will be happier. My parents spanked me, but they always did it in a very cool, relaxed way. And they always talked to me, and explained everything. They never seemed angry, so I never learned to fear their “wrath”. I only wanted to avoid being punished again. That desire to avoid punishment taught me some of the discipline you speak of.

    • notjustcute

      You make good points, Erich. As this post comes from an excerpt of a much longer ebook, it only tells a part of the story. I do — very strongly — believe in consequences. I don’t, however, believe that physical punishment is a healthy tool to use as a “consequence”. Later in the ebook, I write at length about consequences, but in this section, I’m largely addressing spanking as a broken tool. I – like you – was spanked now and then and hold no ill will about it and don’t feel I was abused or mistreated. I have great parents. But they taught much more frequently by enforcing consequences than by forceful punishments of a physical nature. That’s the tool I personally prefer to use.

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