Discipline versus Punishment

The all-important difference.

Parents need to teach their children how to behave, what is the difference between right and wrong, and that there are consequences for our actions in life. But although they may, at least on the surface, appear to be essentially the same thing there is a significant difference between discipline and punishment, and while teaching kids the distinction is an important one to keep in mind.

Punishment is about penalizing a child for their misbehavior. Discipline, on the other hand, is about educating the child to understand the need for proper or desirable behavior and then ensuring that they practice it in everyday life. Getting to bed on time – even if you are an adult – can take discipline, for example, as can following a diet or doing a reliable job at work. Discipline is about motivation and habits, and if a person has good discipline then they become a self-motivated, self-disciplined individual. To get to that stage its helps to have a model or mentor to follow, and that is the role of the parent. That’s why the word “discipline” comes from the same root as the word “disciple.” Those who follow a good leader learn to themselves become good leaders and examples.

Punishment, however, is like when you lack work discipline so you get fired or demoted. You cannot discipline yourself enough to follow the rules, so you get arrested and put in permanent time-out in a jail somewhere. You don’t have the discipline or habit of wearing a seatbelt, so you get a traffic ticket for not wearing yours, or you suffer a serious injury in a car accident.

Often the best way to use punishment is not to create it, but to point out to the child ways that it will naturally occur if they do not follow your rules of discipline. A child doesn’t want to clean his room, for example, and then he cannot find his favorite toy. Rather than scolding him for not cleaning, you can explain that the reason he needs to keep his room clean is so that he can find his toys when he wants them. A girl disobeys your rules regarding homework, and gets punished with a bad grade that prevents her from participating on the softball team. You have another chance to educate about the connection between discipline and rewards – or the lack of discipline and punishments.

The more you can show kids this cause and effect relationship, the easier it will be to get them to be disciplined – and the less you will need to rely on punishments that often backfire and just make kids afraid, angry, or more rebellious.