Discipline versus Punishment

Getting to good behavior is a process of learning children, and we are their guides. Children usually behave based on their own impulses and emotions.  Being a parent is also a learning process and sometimes we use our own impulses and emotions to teach our children. Sometimes, that means we default to punishments when a child misbehaves, missing a key teach-able moment. Read on to see how I break down the process of teaching good behavior through discipline vs. punishment.

Let’s compare the two words and what they really mean:

  • Punishment – means to inflict pain or suffering as a penalty.
  • Discipline – basically it means to teach.

We as parents can get very frustrated when a child misbehaves, and it’s understandable.  Specifically when they make the same poor behavior choices again and again. Having clear goals to teach good behavior skills, helps us to respond better. The better we respond, the better the results.

What are our goals for our children when they misbehave?

  • Our first goal is to get them to cooperate. This is primarily short-term.
  • The second, more long term goal is for them to make better choices, without the threat of punishment.
  • To accomplish this requires that you are intentional, practice patience, and stay present.

Let’s look at how discipline and punishment compare when accomplishing the goal of developing good behavior skills.

Discipline versus Punishment:

  • Punishment may shut down a behavior.  Try teaching your child, then they can develop self-discipline skills such as managing impulses and emotions.
  • When you discipline, you encourage a deeper relationship of self-confidence and trust.
  • When you punish, you build a wall between you and decrease the child’s self-confidence and trust.

It makes sense to have a strategy for disciplining a child when they misbehave…

3-steps to disciplining your child:

  1. CONNECT – this does not mean to be passive or permissible.  It means that you begin to set clear expectations, your child calms down emotionally and feels your caring and loving approach. Children are less likely to hear what you are saying when they are upset. You must be patient so that you remain as calm as possible during the process, which is the most stress-free way to discipline, but admittedly the hardest to incorporate.
  2. RE-DIRECT – list out what the poor behavior choice was as well as what the better behavior choice is. This requires you to be present so that you can clearly identify the desired outcome.
  3. REPAIR – discuss the necessary steps on how to solve the current behavior problem, review better choices, and set ground rules (consequences), should the poor behavior choices continue. This requires you to be intentional in your actions so that your long-term goals start to be realized.

Of course, this strategy won’t work all the time, so it’s also important to have a backup strategy. For starters, it’s better to say ‘consequences’ instead of ‘punishments’ so that your intentions are more goal-oriented versus pain-oriented.

When are consequences okay?

  • Only after you’ve you have worked through the 3 steps of discipline and your child still intentionally disobeys the ground rules.

What type of consequences is okay?

  • A consequence that matches the behavior. For example: if the child throws her iPad in an impulsive rage, then taking away her iPad for 48 hours is a considered a reasonable consequence. (A week is a long period and could potentially trigger more anger and rage. The goal is to teach her, but also empower her to self-correct her behavior in the future. The smaller time frame will teach her that throwing things is not acceptable, but at the same time, you trust that she will re-correct this behavior within the next few days.)

What type of consequence are not okay?

  • A consequence that is retroactive. For example: taking away good things isn’t the best consequence, such as karate lessons, which positively reinforces self-discipline. Although parents may think this is a good consequence because it’s an activity they enjoy, and the pain of losing karate will teach them a valuable lesson.  It’s actually doing the opposite. Pain infliction based on taking away something they like may cause more misbehavior, and instill long-term damage to their trust in you. On top of that, consider the fact that they would lose all the positive benefits karate reinforces such as discipline, confidence, fitness, positive social interaction, and more.
  •  A consequence that decreases morale. For example: taking away a student’s belt will shame the child, which decreases self-esteem. Public humiliation will leave a permanent and negative footprint in the child’s brain. For every negative footprint left, morale and self-esteem decrease. The more children lack morale and self-confidence, the less chance you have that they will believe in themselves to be able to make proper behavior choices.

So, what do you do if you have a child that is misbehaving with occasional episodes of back-talking, rage, and general rule defiance?   You map out a productive strategy that includes a method for building proper behavior habits along with pre-determined consequences.

For example:

  • If you hit someone, then you must write a letter to the person you hit (or if you are younger, you must apologize face to face with a specific pre-framed apology).
  • If you throw a something, then you lose a personal item for 48 hours.
  • If you show poor manners, then you must re-enact the proper manner if you are younger, or write a letter about having better manners. All of this should be pre-framed.
  • If you wake up late for school because you stayed up late the night before, then you must go to bed an hour earlier for the next two days.

At the same time, you must also have rewards if you want consequences to work. Reward your child when he goes a week without misbehaving. (This time frame may be shorter or longer depending on the child.) Consider that the best rewards are not material things, but more relationship-building rewards. For example: she can pick to go to a special place for a family dinner, or family movie.

My suggestion is to make a list of consequences and rewards so that you are prepared.

Now, what if you’ve tried this strategy and it just won’t work?

For starters, be sure to give it time. You must be reasonable about how long it will take to develop better behavior choices if you are struggling with your child.  It won’t happen overnight, and at the same time, she may fall off track from time to time after showing improvement.

However, if you’ve tried these strategies for a solid month with no success, then the next step would be to bring in an expert. There may be some neurological deficiencies there that are interfering with her development.

Bottom line is:

  • Discipline is the better, more positively-productive method for instilling long-term behavior skills.
  • Connect, re-direct, and repair is the 3-step method for developing self-discipline skills. 
  • When necessary, consequences are more productive than punishments. Avoid consequences that are retroactive or ones that decrease morale. Be sure to add rewards as well.

I hope this article sheds some positive light on how to help your child make better behavior choices!