Family, Kids & Relationships

Parents: Do you know the difference between “punishment” and “discipline”?

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The terms “punishment” and “discipline” are often used interchangeably when it comes to dealing with kids’ negative behavior, but in fact they’re quite different. While discipline guides a child to change their behavior long term and helps them understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions, punishment only addresses their behavior in that moment and usually damages your relationship (and their self esteem) in the process. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Punishment

  • Often relies on fear or shame to get kids to comply
  • Uses unfair or unrelated consequences to stop the behavior in the short term
  • Focuses on the parent controlling the child’s behavior

Using punishment may give you a temporary sense of control, but it makes kids feel ashamed or angry, alone in their problems, and at odds with you. Punishment doesn’t foster respect and communication between you and your child, and doesn’t help them focus on improving their behavior for the long term. 

Discipline

  • Teaches kids how to make better choices next time
  • Reassures kids that they’re loved, even when they make mistakes
  • Focuses on the child controlling their own behavior

Discipline actually helps kids find real solutions to their problems. Discipline makes your child want to improve their behavior, while knowing that they have your support in doing so. It’s way better for kids’ emotional health—and yours!

For example, let’s say Kaylin and Darius have been bickering about a card game they’re playing, and it escalates until they’re yelling. You might say, “Cut that out right now! That’s it, movie night tonight is cancelled!”

That’s punishment. Maybe it got the kids to stop arguing in the moment, but it didn’t teach them anything about how to handle conflict the next time it comes up. It also probably fostered some resentment or anger, since the consequence feels arbitrary and unfair because it had nothing to do with their behavior.

If you used discipline in that scenario instead of punishment, you might say, “Ok, hand the cards to me. Neither of you are playing with them right now. Let’s all take a deep breath. Now Kaylin, explain to Darius from your perspective what was so upsetting—then Darius, you’ll have a chance to explain how things seemed to you.”

This time, you’ve imposed a logical consequence (taking the cards away) and stopped the arguing, while also giving the kids some tools for resolving conflict in the future. 

Examples of what to say (and not say)

So how else might you react to kids’ behavioral problems with respectful discipline, rather than punitive punishment? Here are some examples that can help in different situations. Yes, your kid needs to learn to behave appropriately, but remember that you’re in this together.

Instead of…Say…
“You know you’re not supposed to throw food! You’re definitely not having dessert now.”“I see you have a lot of extra energy! But just a reminder, you’ll have to pick up the mess from the floor before we can start dessert.”
“Go to your rooms, both of you! And stay there till dinner! I can’t take this fighting anymore.”“I bet we can find a better way to solve this problem. Are you ready to talk about it now, or do you need to calm down for five minutes first? I will put the toy up here so it’s safe.”
“If you kick me one more time, I’m going to have to take your teddy bear away for the night.”“I understand that you don’t like saying goodnight, but kicking me is not going to help. It’s time to rest and relax your body. Let’s think of something happy and calming to dream about tonight.”
“Since you didn’t come home on time again, you have to do all your brother’s chores for the rest of the week!”“Since you chose not to follow the rules, you won’t be able to go out tomorrow night. How can we make sure you come home on time in the future? Let’s each think of a few ideas, and talk about it after dinner.”
“That’s enough screaming! You just lost your screen time!”“Please speak to me in a quieter voice. Should we take five deep breaths together and then try again?”
“If you don’t turn off that game right now, I’ll just have to change the iPad password on you!”“I’ll give you one minute to save your game and put away the iPad. Remember, if you want to earn screen time for tomorrow, you have to show us that you can stop when it’s over.”

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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.