A Closer Look at Discipline and Punishment

A Closer Look at Discipline and Punishment

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Look beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to shaping and guiding your child’s behavior

Disciplining your child is an important part of parenting. It’s designed to discourage unwanted behavior while encouraging desired behaviors. For parents, it can feel like a lot is riding on how you manage it, and you don’t always know if you’re getting it right.

Some questions parents ask themselves include the following: What is the difference between disciplining and punishing your child? How should the key differences between the two inform how you handle a child’s misbehavior? If your children each respond to punishment differently, how can you tell what’s working?

What is discipline?

Disciplining is a more hands-on approach to raising a child and one designed to encourage and deepen your relationship with your child. Discipline uses rewards and consequences to either encourage or discourage behavior.

Discipline consists of boundaries and clearly communicated expectations designed to teach a child appropriate behavior. What you consider to be appropriate behavior will depend on your values, your idea of right and wrong, and what will keep your child safe. When your child steps outside those boundaries or fails to meet expectations, discipline can get your child back on track.

It’s important that you communicate your expectations to your children so they don’t become frustrated. If they haven’t been told what you expect of them, then discipline can feel arbitrary and unfair. Make sure you set realistic expectations, too. Expectations that aren’t age appropriate or realistic will only lead to a contentious parent-child relationship. Remember that expectations and boundaries are part of any loving relationship.

What are the discipline styles?

There are three types of discipline styles: permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian.

Permissive. A permissive discipline style features parents who shower their children with love but set few, if any, boundaries and also fail to establish clear expectations. One might think children would favor this style, but the reality is that children crave order at home. As they seek to make sense of the world around them, consistency is critical.

Authoritative. Parents who use an authoritative discipline style set well-established boundaries and expectations, but can be flexible. They may engage in more problem solving with the child, rather than directly punishing the child. For example, if a younger child acts out, the parent could ask her to assess for herself if her behavior is driven by hunger or fatigue. Doing so teaches the child to begin managing her own emotions and behavior.

Authoritarian. Parents who adapt an authoritarian discipline style insist on being “in charge.” They tend to show less affection and be impatient in fielding any questions from the child. They don’t take the time to help the child understand the boundaries or why the boundaries exist, or to tie the consequence to what they perceive to be poor behavior. And if the child does misbehave, the parents may just punish them outright.

What is punishment?

Parents who punish their children often subscribe to the belief that kids must suffer if they break the rules. Since most beings want to avoid pain, the thinking behind punishing kids is that the physical or emotional pain will make them stop.

As social worker Amy Morin puts it, “Punishment is about controlling a child, rather than teaching the child how to control himself. And most often, punishment changes the way a child thinks about himself.” Often, despite your best intentions, you may resort to punishments when tired and frustrated. A spanking or time-out can work—but only temporarily. The risk is that the child spends the time-out becoming increasingly angry at the caregiver or mentally chastising himself. Spankings can negatively impact your relationship with your child, and time-outs can negatively impact your child’s self-esteem.

Discipline versus punishment

On the surface, discipline and punishment appear to be quite similar. They often feature consequences, though discipline uses rewards while punishment doesn’t. The difference is in how the consequences are handled.

For a consequence to be most effective, it should be tied to the offense, such as a child losing the opportunity to play with her toys for an hour for refusing to put away her toys prior. The consequence should also be immediate, particularly for younger children who have short memories.

Punishment, on the other hand, can feel arbitrary. A spanking has nothing to do with a child throwing food, for example, nor will it teach your child self-control. If, however, you insist the child clean up the food she threw, she is experiencing a natural consequence. A punishment can also send the message that you don’t believe your child can control herself.

There are times when you might need to punish, for example, if the child’s behavior puts her at risk and you need immediate cooperation. You won’t always have the time to problem-solve or help him trace his actions back to the underlying cause. If occasionally you need to punish rather than discipline your child, it is unlikely to do any lasting harm.

Which discipline tactics work for your child?

Although the consequence should be tied to the misbehavior, pay attention to how each child responds to the consequence tactic you choose. My sister and I are very different. I was an avid bookworm growing up, so sending me to my room as a consequence for misbehavior was no punishment. It was a break from my two siblings and a dive into my latest book! My sister, a die-hard extrovert, couldn’t take five minutes on her own. Applying a one-size-fits-all approach to either discipline or punishment isn’t as effective as tailoring your approach to each child.

With older children, you can spend more time brainstorming solutions or involve them in determining a fair consequence, but this tactic could be lost on a younger child. Discipline can require more work and thoughtfulness than punishment, but it pays off in helping your children learn to resolve conflict and self-moderate.

Don’t be afraid to try new consequences or switch tactics, but keep your guidelines consistent. According to the CDC, “Consistency means that you respond to your child’s behavior the same way every time.” Don’t let a particular behavior slide one day and then bring down the hammer the next time it happens, or your child could grow resentful and confused. When coparenting, it’s important for both parents to adhere to the same rules and discipline styles at both houses.

Raising a child well requires thoughtfulness, love, and consistency. You won’t always get it right, and that’s OK. If you slip up, take a deep breath, and try again. There will always be another opportunity to show your love for your children, and that’s a great message to give them.

What discipline techniques have worked for you?

Dena Landon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, the Washington Post, Salon, Parent Co., and more. She blogs about being a Solo Mom at Femme Feminism.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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