Today, many new parents are moving away from the concept of “punishment” and are now advocating a supposedly more positive and constructive form of “discipline”.  A quick search of the Online Oxford Dictionary establishes them as synonyms of one another, and also defines “discipline”  to be:

“The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.” - Oxford Dictionary 

With that being said, what is the difference between punishment and discipline?

The Problem with Punishment 

Punishment works by instilling fear. With punishment, your child will quickly learn to associate bad behaviour with pain and loss. It quickly establishes that bad choices have negative consequences. It is often seen as a fast and easy way of obtaining immediate compliance from children.

However, punishment is also frowned upon. The Save the Children Resource Centre in Sweden has labelled punishment as “physical and humiliating”, while Focus on the Family argues that punishment “produces negative characteristics” in children, and due to the emphasis on past deeds, children feel helpless with no chance for redemption. There is often no follow up from parents to explain why their actions were wrong. The inconsistent actions of parents, who must play the dual-roles of  loving parent and strict disciplinarian, often leaves the child confused and angry. 

The Advantages of Discipline

In contrast, discipline is a positive method for teaching a child self-control, confidence, and responsibility. It focuses on what children are expected and allowed to do, and can include encouraging, modelling, and rewarding good behaviour. As opposed to being a reactionary action like punishment, discipline is a process that focuses on future acts.

Discipline works by teaching, training, and guiding your children so that they learn to practice self-control and develop the ability to manage their emotions and make wise choices regarding their personal behaviour. Like punishment, discipline helps children realize that their actions have consequences, and it is the choices that each child makes that determines these consequences. 

While the desired outcomes for punishment and discipline are similar, the Michigan State University holds that the result of the process creates different outcomes for both children and their parents, and impacts them differently. With discipline, children learn to see the connection between their behaviour, the personal consequences and the impact of their actions on others. Parents and caregivers also experience less guilt and stress when controlling the child.

Disciplining Your Child in Today’s Environment

The prevalence of families where both parents need to work reduces the amount of quality time parents have to spend with their children. Stressed parents tend to be less patient with their children and punishment is therefore still common despite the paradigm shifts in parenting.  However, given the longer term advantages of a programme of discipline, it is worth the effort to set aside some time to develop a firm but carefully-planned set of discipline guidelines.

Key Takeaways

  • Today's commonly used methodology of discipline has changed drastically from the methods used in the past. As opposed to strict punishments put in place for errant behaviour, more parents today advocate a more constructive approach where children are taught the behaviour that is expected of them.

  • Punishment is seen as a negative, reactionary and destructive method of discipline that has adverse effects on the parents and the child.

  • Discipline, in contrast, is seen as a constructive, forward-looking and positive method that teaches the child the right behaviours and life skills. It is held as a preferable method by many parents today, and is reported to have many benefits on the child and parents.