What is the difference between discipline and punishment? Punishment makes you look and feel bad. And it never really solves your child’s behavior issues.
Disciplining and punishing your child are not the same thing, but the line between the two can become blurred.
While discipline is about teaching what you consider to be appropriate behavior, punishment is about controlling your child’s behavior through fear. Discipline and punishment both seek to modify your child’s behavior, but the first can help you build a strong relationship with them whereas the second can ruin your relationship for life.
Discipline vs punishment
Defining punitive discipline is a complex endeavor because behavior that may be perceived as “normal” for one person may be described as “extremely harsh” by another.
Punitive disciple refers to:
- Repeated exposure to criticism
- Excessive yelling
- Any form of physical abuse
- Any actions whose purpose is to instill fear
- Any form of verbal abuse that demeans your child
In short, punitive discipline refers to any discipline approach that makes your child feel worthless or pushes them to act in a certain way because of fear of repercussions. That said, it seems important to differentiate between punishment and harsh punishment.
Understanding harsh and punitive discipline approaches
“How harsh is too harsh when it comes to disciplining your child?” is a complex question that has no easy answer. What we know though, is that severe parenting can scar your child for life.
The latest study to prove that harsh parenting can be detrimental to your child’s wellbeing was undertaken by researchers from Stanford University and Université de Montréal. 94 adolescents, who had been monitored since birth, participated in the study. They were monitored between the ages of 2.5 and 9 years old.
To assess the impact of parents’ discipline strategies on children’s brain development, the kids were divided into different groups depending on whether or not they had been exposed to repeated harsh parenting practices between the ages of two and nine.
As part of the study, the researchers evaluated parenting practices and the children’s anxiety levels on an annual basis. Their objective was to determine the impact of harsh discipline approaches on long term brain development. The adolescents assessed were between the ages of 12 and 16.
The researchers found that the brain structure of adolescents who had been subjected to high levels of harsh discipline practices between 2.5 and 9 years old was smaller than in adolescents with lower levels of harsh discipline.
In other words, the study found that repeated severe parenting approaches have a long-term negative impact on children’s brain development.
Other studies have come to a similar conclusion. They have found that behavior such as physical abuse and yelling at children may lead to long term negative social, academic and emotional effects.
One study found that children whose parents were too severe tended to be more anxious and were more likely to suffer from mental disorders, and another found that children whose parents were physically aggressive were more likely to be aggressive themselves and to display bullying behavior.
In a separate study, researchers found that harsh discipline led to lower educational attainment.
The same study found that students whose parents had been too harsh also developed extreme peer orientations, meaning that they tended to seek validation from their peers. They also engaged in early sexual behavior and in delinquent acts such as stealing more frequently.
Yet another study found that when kids whose parents privileged harsh discipline approaches were more likely to lie to avoid punishment, even for minor transgressions.
That said, not all studies have found a link between harsh environments and negative outcomes.
For example, while one study found that juvenile offenders from democratic families functioned better than their counterparts raised in harsh environments, it found no relationship between the offenders’ environments and their psychological problems.
Harsh punishment refers to repeated abuse that can physically or psychologically harm your child. While the occasional yell will not scar your child for life, if you are yelling at them too often, then you just might be doing them great harm, the effects of which can spill over into adolescence and even into their adult lives.
So let’s look at a few examples of what punishment looks like.
Discipline vs punishment examples: what does punishment look like?
Punishment often involves an attempt to keep your child “under control” and to show them “who’s boss”.
Here are several characteristics that punitive discipline approaches share:
- Punitive disciplinary measures are often disproportionate to the behavior in question.
- They often fail to consider children’s level of development.
- Punitive measures isolate children and make them feel worthless.
- They instill fear in children.
- They involve withdrawing affection.
- They do not teach them about appropriate behavior but rather focus on controlling them
The examples below may be considered punitive:
- Grounding your child for a month because they came home later than was agreed is an example of a punitive discipline approach.
- Putting a child aged over six in time out. Studies have shown that timeout is rarely an effective discipline strategy, especially after age six.
- Putting a child in time-out for long periods. If you choose to use timeout with your child, the general rule is to apply 1 minute of time-out for every year of their age.
- Constant threats that stress your child and have a negative impact on their psychological development
Teaching your child the behavior that is expected of them and holding them accountable for that behavior is the most effective way to help them learn to manage that behavior on their own.
The good news is that there are many effective discipline strategies that do not involve punishment.
What is the difference between discipline and punishment? Examples of effective discipline strategies
Unlike punishment, discipline is not about control. It is about helping your child understand the behavior that is expected of them, setting limits, and making it clear to them that they are responsible for their behavior.
In other words, discipline is about setting the ground rules then holding your child accountable for their behavior.
Here are several characteristics of effective discipline approaches:
- They privilege natural consequences whenever possible – for example, if your child fails to do their homework because they were playing a videogame, a natural consequence would be “videogames are only allowed after homework is done correctly”.
- They look at the whole picture. We now know that several factors affect your child’s behavior. A child is more likely to act out when they are hungry, stressed, tired and so on. To discipline your child, it is important to focus on the triggers, not only on the behavior you see.
- Effective discipline approaches are those in which expectations, limits and consequences are clear for all the parties involved. Your child should always be aware of the consequences of their behavior.
- Parents who use effective discipline approaches are democratic. In other words, they are willing to listen to their children’s viewpoints and are open to negotiation where negotiable values are concerned.
Giving a clear-cut example of what harsh or punitive behavior looks like is not as easy as it seems. Yelling at your child can harm them, yet almost every parent has done it or continues to do it. Where should parents draw the line between a harmful and less harmful discipline strategy?
Here are a few tips to effectively manage your child’s behavior without punishment.
Discipline without punishment: How to make it work
1) Focus on disciplining, not punishing your child
There is a huge difference between disciplining and punishing your child. Discipline is about teaching, punishment is about control. Be honest about your discipline approach: does it teach your child about the behavior expected or is it all about punishing them?
2) Remember that focusing on good behavior increases the chances of that behavior being repeated.
Many parents focus on the behavior that they want to eliminate instead of the behavior that they want to see. The more you focus on negative behavior, the more you reinforce it.
The opposite is also true: focusing on positive behavior increases it. Let your child know exactly what is expected of them and comment positively on any good behavior.
Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective discipline strategies, but only if it is done right. Many parents make the mistake of reinforcing negative behavior, which actually makes your child’s behavior worse.
In other words, giving your child a reinforcer to get them to stop inappropriate behavior will reinforce that behavior by teaching them that to get what they want, they only have to act out. But giving your child a reinforcer because they were able to control their behavior and not act out during a predefined period of time makes it easier to transform good behavior into a habit.
Positive reinforcement is a positive and effective discipline strategy that can help you transform your child’s behavior, but you have to get it right.
It is important to be clear about the behavior you are trying to change, prepare a behavior chart, identify your reinforcers and a reinforcement schedule, and gradually reduce then stop reinforcement when your child adopts the behavior you expect.
The Positive Behavior Kit lays out everything you need to know – and the pitfalls you need to avoid – to adopt this discipline strategy.
3) Set appropriate expectations and limits
When you expect your child to do more than they can, they will fail. When you expect them to “act as adults”, they will fail. Effective discipline is about setting appropriate limits and expectations, then identifying appropriate consequences when those limits are transgressed.
If you want discipline to work, you must be consistent every single time, especially where the values concerned are important to you. Inconsistency sends mixed messages to your child and can make their behavior worse.
4) Model positive behavior
You cannot expect your child to not yell when you are always yelling at them or at others. You cannot expect them to show respect when they receive none. Think of the values that matter to you and your family then model those.
5) Not everything is a “discipline issue”
Your child is not a “young adult”, meaning that they will do things that kids are supposed to do. While some of their behavior may make you think of them as a “difficult child”, remember that it is this same behavior that will help them learn to express themselves, act independently and even feel confident in their abilities.
In other words, not everything requires a “consequence”. Reflecting on your negotiable and non-negotiable values will make it easier to know where to draw the line.
6) Get informed about non-punitive discipline approaches
Many parents who choose harsh discipline approaches do so because they believe them to be the best discipline strategies possible. This may be because they themselves were raised in a punitive environment, or perhaps because those are the only approaches that they are familiar with.
But harsh and punitive approaches rarely work. They may get you the behavior you want in the short term, but they only work because of your child’s fear.
In other words, punitive environments teach your child about fear and control, not about being able to choose between appropriate and inappropriate behavior by themselves.
The good news is that there are many different non-punitive and effective discipline approaches to your child’s behavior. Get informed and choose a strategy in line with your child and your family context.
The thing to remember about punitive discipline methods is that while they may appear to work, they often lead to long-term negative consequences and can ruin your relationship with your child, well beyond the childhood years.
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References and further resources
Proven tips to setting limits that reduce your child’s problem behavior
Kid won’t listen without yelling? Stop yelling and do this instead
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