Positive discipline: Punishment vs. discipline

Punishment and discipline are not synonyms.

Positive discipline helps children learn to see a connection between their behavior and the impact of the their actions on others. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Positive discipline helps children learn to see a connection between their behavior and the impact of the their actions on others. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Often people consider discipline and punishment to be synonyms, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Michigan State University Extension, punishment and discipline are very different and have separate outcomes for children and distinct impacts on parents and caregivers. In fact, the thesaurus lists “sentence” and “abuse” as synonyms for punishment. And, although the thesaurus lists punish as a synonym for discipline it more accurately identifies self-control, regulation and the verb to instruct. Let’s look at the difference between punishment and discipline and explore which works best for the goals you have for your child.

Punishment is about controlling or regulating a child’s behavior through fear. Regardless of whether the consequence is physical such as hitting, spanking or missing dinner; emotional such as belittling, name calling or withholding affection; or punitive such as not being able to play with a friend, go to a movie or play outside; the child learns to fear the consequence that will be imposed on them if they are caught.  In these situations, an adult might be heard saying something like “I better not catch you doing that again,” or “Don’t let me ever see you doing that again!” or “That’s it! I’ve had it”.  The message as interpreted by the child is not that the behavior is inappropriate, but rather that they need to be careful not to be caught.  As a result, children learn to be careful when and how they behave when you are looking putting the responsibility for managing behavior on the adult rather than the child.  This isn’t effective in helping children learn self-control or making better behavior choices.  On top of that, parents and caregivers often experience much more stress and frustration which can impact their health and wellbeing as they constantly need to be on the watch for their child’s poor behavior.  While research consistently shows that punishment results in children spending more energy in rebellious and avoidance behaviors, it certainly doesn’t mean that children should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want wish.  Consistency, firmness and respect are all important components of positive discipline.

The goal of positive discipline is to teach, train and guide children so that they learn, practice self-control and develop the ability to manage their emotions, and make wise choices regarding their personal behavior.  Positive discipline helps children understand that their choices, actions and behaviors all have consequences and that it is the choices the child makes that determines the consequences thereby letting them realize that they have more control of their lives. While some consequences in positive discipline and punishment may sound similar, they result in different outcomes for the child and impacts on parents and caregivers.  With positive discipline, children learn to see a connection between their behavior, the personal consequences and the impact of their actions on others.  Parents and caregivers can remain calmer and experience less stress or guilt because they are not controlling their child.

While punishment can result in children not behaving in certain ways when you are present, it can also discourage them from trying to do things because they don’t want to bring on shame or pain; and can result in behaviors that are more challenging, manipulative or disobedient.   Using a positive discipline approach still necessitates that the parent or caregiver be consistent and firm, but at the same time teaches children what is proper and expected; trains and equips them with the knowledge, skills and abilities to make appropriate choices; and guides them in making those choices using consistent, loving, respectful and age-appropriate consequences.

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