The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline

Learn how to manage misbehaviors with discipline

Use discipline to teach your child how to behave better.
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When it comes to correcting your child's misbehavior, there’s a big difference between punishment and discipline. While punishment focuses on making a child suffer for breaking the rules, discipline is about teaching him how to make a better choice next time.

What is Punishment?

Punishment is an intervention that instills a penalty for a child’s offense. It often stems from a parent’s feelings of frustration and desperation.

Punishment usually gives kids the message that “I’m bad.” Often, parents who instill punishments are  desperately to maintain control and trying to prove to the child that “I’m in charge whether you like it or not.”

Authoritarian parents are most likely to punish kids. Punishment, like a spanking, is meant to inflict pain and suffering. Other examples of punishment include things such as a teenager getting grounded indefinitely, or a child's toys being thrown away because he didn't clean his room.

The Problems with Punishments

Punishments don't teach children how to behave. A child who receives a spanking for hitting his brother doesn't learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. Instead, he'll be left feeling confused about why it's OK for you to hit him but it's not OK for him to hit his brother.

Punishment also teaches kids that they are not able to be in control of themselves. They learn their parents must manage their behavior because they are not able to do it on their own.

Harsh punishment can cause kids to dwell on their anger toward the person inflicting the pain, rather than the reason they got in trouble. So rather than sit and reflect on how he can do better next time, a child who is forced to sit in the corner for hours may spend his time thinking about how to get revenge on the caregiver who put him there.

What is Discipline?

Discipline focuses on teaching children new skills, such as how to manage their behavior, solve problems, and deal with uncomfortable emotions. Discipline focuses on teaching kids to learn from their mistakes and helps them discover socially appropriate ways to deal with their emotions.

Discipline techniques include things such as time-out. The goal of time-out is to teach children how to calm themselves down when they are upset so that in the future they can seek time out on their own before they throw a toy.

Discipline takes an authoritative approach where kids learn alternatives to their behaviors. When they are given negative consequences, the consequences are clear and they're time sensitive. A child might lose his electronics for a day for refusing to shut of the TV when he's asked, for example.

The Benefits of Discipline

Discipline is proactive, rather than reactive. It prevents many behavior problems and it ensures kids are actively learning from their mistakes.

Many discipline techniques involve positive approaches, such as praise and reward systems.

Positive reinforcement encourages good behavior to continue and provides kids with clear incentives to follow the rules.

Discipline fosters positive relationships between parent and kids. And quite often, that positive relationship reduces attention-seeking behavior and motivates kids to behave. 

Kids who receive discipline are more likely to think, "I did something bad," rather than, "I'm bad." When kids are able to separate who they are from what they did, they're more likely to believe that they have the ability to behave better in the future.

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