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Discipline vs Punishment: Does The Difference Matter?

There's a big difference to be aware of between discipline and punishment.

Do you think discipline and punishments are both the same thing?

This is a common misconception! Many parents use these terms interchangeably, but there’s a considerable difference between the two.

So what is the difference between discipline and punishment? In essence, the definition of discipline is all about teaching your child to make a better choice next time and guiding their behavior to avoid consequences. Punishment focuses more on ensuring a child pays a consequence for whatever they did that was out of line. An easy way to remember is that punishment is about inflicting suffering on a child because of a past event and hopes to change future behavior this way. The approach of discipline looks at the future by teaching rules and showing a child how they can shape their behavior next time. With discipline, a child will understand what lead them to the consequences and won't be left wondering what they did wrong.

Should you be looking to learn more about which approach to take with your child, and what the impact will be, you can read this guide about whether you should discipline or punish. If you found this topic insightful, be sure to browse our other informative parenting features such as this guide to helping your child deal with an emotional meltdown or these tips and guidance on [habit reversal training].

Difference Between Discipline And Punishment

Discipline gives children the tools they need to change their behavior

The best way to define discipline is to consider it as an effective approach that enables children to change their behavior. It gives children the essential tools they need to learn how to control themselves. There are both negative disciplines, such as a time out after several warnings, and positive disciplines such as verbal praise or a reward for good behavior.

Discipline shows children how they can manage their emotions effectively and focuses on the solution to their behavior. It’s important to be kind and firm when using positive or negative discipline. Discipline also enables a child to learn boundaries and social and life skills such as respect for others, responsibility for themselves, and a sense of connection.

Punishment is a type of negative consequence that lacks the effective “how to” part or explanation to teach the child what to do.  Another word for punishment is penalizing. Punishments can include shouting, hitting, or getting a child to suffer any form of humiliation or fear. Ultimately a punishment does not show a child how to behave, and it can result in detrimental psychological effects on your child.

Punishment is often a drastic measure used by parents to end or get rid of a behavior. In many cases, instead of a child reflecting on what they did wrong, punishment can cause friction in your family, and instead, they may be thinking about how to get revenge or avoid getting caught next time. You might have heard adults say, “well, back in my day, it wasn’t like this, and I turned out fine.” These adults are to be considered lucky if so, as research has found lots of negative aspects to having received harsh punishment to achieve good behavior in childhood.

Which One Works Better For Children?

You may already know a bit about parenting styles and how this affects your family decisions. There are many types of parenting styles when it comes to punishment and discipline. However, research by J Howenstein, A Kumar, PS Casamassimo, D Mctigue, D Coury, and H Yin in 2015 found that authoritarian parents are most likely to punish kids. Authoritarian parents are typically very strict, and they expect their kids to follow the rules and order without any room for compromise.

Positive discipline falls under an authoritative parenting approach instead; this emphasizes how to teach effective communication and problem-solving. More and more research shows discipline methods are better than serving a bad punishment.

If you shout at your kid to “stop right now, else no TV for you today!” you might be fast to react and serve the consequence, and it’s a typical reaction if you are feeling stressed or frustrated, but research shows us this is unlikely to create any changes in your child's bad behavior in the long run. The same goes if you punish your child physically, for example by hitting your child in response to them hitting a peer. Research by MJ Mackenzie, E Nicklas, J Waldfogel, and J Brooks-Gunn into spanking and child development in 2013 found children do not learn how to resolve this conflict and instead end up feeling confusion and fear from their parents. In addition, punishments teach children that they are not able to control themselves and that someone must take control of them. Severe punishment also leads to low self-esteem in many children. Instead of thinking about how they made a poor choice, it results in them feeling like they are a bad person.

It’s also important to consider the impact of yelling at your child. Research by C.R. Solomon and F Serres in 1999 found that aggressively bad behavior and shouting at your children is also likely to negatively affect your child’s self-esteem and even their school grades.

Yelling at your child is likely to negatively affect your child's self-esteem.

There’s a continuously growing pool of research that indicates that using discipline is better than using punishment. That means using a kind but firm, positive and negative balance of consequences and not any punishment or yelling.

When it comes to discipline, using a combination of positive and negative behavior consequences with kids has been found to reduce “socially risky” misbehavior in many studies. Interestingly V Battistich's research at Pennsylvania State University in 1999 also linked this to better academic achievements and the likelihood of your child improving in their social environment.

You could be wondering what to do about making a child feel “sorry” for their misbehavior. It’s not a good idea to force a child to say sorry without any explanation. Often adults insist children say sorry to one another for a squabble, and very often, that’s where the discipline conversation stops. This is teaching kids that saying sorry is something we have to do when someone in power makes us do so. Ultimately it leads to resistance which can grow into our lives as adults. Instead, an effective conversation needs to be held about why the action was hurtful, what they can do to address any hurt caused to the other person, and how it could be prevented again.

Discipline vs Punishment Examples

Here are some examples of punishment and discipline responses.

Scenario 1

A child is jumping excessively on the couch.

Punishment: A parent may say, “You need to stop doing jumping right away; it’s wrong.”

Kids Learn: They learn they can’t control their own actions independently. Their behavior has to be to be managed by you or someone else. They learn being careful not to get caught is more important than changing what they’re doing.

Discipline: A parent may say, “Jumping on the couch is dangerous. I would be really sad if you hurt yourself. Look, you can jump here on this cushion in the corner.”

Kids Learn: They can control their own actions and manage their behavior through self-control. They are learning they will need to make changes to this behavior if they want to prevent any consequences. They understand why it’s not a good idea to jump on the couch.

Scenario 2

Two children are squabbling over a toy and not sharing, one of them pushes the other over, and they are arguing with one another.

Punishment: A parent may shout, “You two, stop it right now; else, you are not going to the park.”

Kids Learn: Shouting might work in the heat of the moment, but it doesn’t explain to either of them how to remediate the situation should it arise again in the future.

Discipline: A parent may say, "I am going to take this toy away now, Adam, breathe deeply and tell your sister how you are feeling, Nicole, listen to Adam." Then, "Nicole, it’s your turn to explain your emotions to your brother." Then, "I know you are both upset. What could you two do next time to make sure this doesn’t happen?"

Kids Learn: This allows the children to explain how they feel and time to calm down. By recognizing their feelings, you are also validating their feelings as real emotions. You are also providing the children with a question on how they could prevent the scenario next time.

Scenario 3

A child skateboards in the road after he has been told not to.

Punishment: A parent may say, “Now,  you have to do your sister’s household chores for two weeks in addition to your own.”

Kids Learn: That they can do this again as long as they don't get caught and that you may be ruining any fun they were having. It doesn't help them with mastering self-control or learning the danger of their actions.

Discipline: A parent may point out calmly that since he decided not to follow the rules, he cannot use his new skateboard for the rest of the afternoon. They calmly explain the dangers of his actions and where he could have skateboarded instead.

Kids Learn: The child learns what steps resulted in the removal of the skateboard, and how to behave next time if they want to keep the skateboard, as well as learning about where to skate safely.

If you found this article helpful, then why not take a look at our [toddler behavior chart] or our guide to what to do if your child gets [expelled from school]?

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Kidadl Team

The Kidadl Team is made up of people from different walks of life, from different families and backgrounds, each with unique experiences and nuggets of wisdom to share with you. From lino cutting to surfing to children’s mental health, their hobbies and interests range far and wide. They are passionate about turning your everyday moments into memories and bringing you inspiring ideas to have fun with your family.

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