Punishment vs Discipline

To watch the video version click here.

Today, we’re going to talk about punishment vs discipline.

I talked about this a few times in the Parenting Posse over the summer and I’ve mentioned bits on here a few times but as we’ve grown so exponentially in the last six months I’m noticing people using these terms interchangeably so I think it’s time for a MudRoom that we can refer back to as needed.

The concepts of punishment and discipline are so often conflated and it’s really stressful not only for children who are obviously the recipients, but also for their parents.

If I had a nickel for every time a parent has said to me “I know I need to discipline them, but no matter how I punish them- it doesn’t work!”

I could afford to take every family in ParentAbility on a Caribbean vacation. If you don’t understand the distinction between punishment and discipline, it’s super frustrating as a parent! It is generally when I see parents starting to get “creative.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE advocate for creativity in almost every aspect…but when it comes to disciplining children…not so much.

“Creativity” in discipline tends to be a euphemism for “makes no sense.” Then we’re confused as to why children aren’t learning.

Let’s start with defining punishment.

What is a punishment?

Dictionary definition-wise, punishment is “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.”

When you look it up in a thesaurus it comes up with retribution, revenge, sanctions, vengeance, and penance. Therefore, when you are punishing a child- you are getting revenge on them.

You are making them pay for what they’ve done.

Now by contrast, what’s the definition of discipline?

The dictionary’s definition is “activity or experience that provides mental or physical training”. Synonyms include coaching, training, teach, and educate. The word discipline comes from the root word “disciple.” Which means student.

Therefore to discipline someone, is to teach them.

Can you see the contrast between those two concepts?

As we’ve talked about quite a bit- in our episodes on Time Outs, My two magic questions to solve any behavior issue, on Natural and Logical Consequences.

Punishments focus on telling a child what NOT to do. How NOT to behave.

When you punish someone, you get retribution on them for what they did do. It expects that by telling them what NOT to do, that they’ll magically infer what the opposite desirable behavior is.

Before Christmas, I did a one-day live training for a group , which is always fun because I’m used to being behind the camera. I gave them a simple recipe, and some ingredients, and then I told them they had to verbally follow my directions to make the thing.

Then, I proceeded to tell them what NOT to do, to make the thing. Which ingredients NOT to add. What tools NOT to use. What NOT to do next.

Any quick guesses on how long it took them to get frustrated with me? Like 30 seconds!

One woman was standing there paralyzed with indecision. She was literally standing there, with her hands up in the air, ready to act….but every time I told her what not to do she had to engage in a mental process of elimination and it just- totally froze her.

One man stopped listening to me, and he just threw all his ingredients in the bowl and mixed them up and then was shocked when it didn’t turn out.

Every time someone didn’t know what to do, I made them sit in the corner and think about what they’d done. When they came back I’d ask them “do you know what to do now?”

They’d look at me like I was insane.

Let’s just say we didn’t get anything edible made for our snack. Not even close. Because it’s impossible to do!

Most of them needed a break afterward because they were EXHAUSTED. Our brains aren’t wired that way. That’s not how human beings learn. All it did was embarrass them, and make them afraid to try anything again because everything they did was wrong. They became paralyzed, and then I’d yell at them for being too slow.

Then we did it again, and I walked them through making the cookies.

First, I told them we were making cookies!

I walked them through the process of what to do step by step, and we had cookies ready to go in the oven in 20 minutes flat.

Even just in the retelling of that experience, which do you think took more energy and effort on both our parts? Which way do you think was faster?

This is EXACTLY what it’s like when we punish children vs discipline them.

Often when I give parents advice they complain that discipline “takes too much time.” Yes, maybe the initial interaction takes more time, but it’s very much the analogy of “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Yes, discipline takes a lot more effort on the front end.

Teaching a child what to do is time-consuming, I’m not denying that. It takes a LOT less time overall, because once they know what to do, they can do it without any support! Versus wasting time hoping they guess what to do based on what you’ve told them not to do.

Note that I say you need to teach them what to do, not tell them what to do. Just because they know what to do doesn’t mean they know HOW to do it.

Telling a child what to do isn’t not going to make them magically comply.

This means that you CAN, in fact, discipline a child without punishing them.

Why, in the Posse, you’re NEVER going to get an answer to “how do I punish my child for doing X or Y?” Because we focus on teaching children HOW to do things.

We focus on discipline.

Why I kind of rear my head at the term “positive discipline.” By definition- discipline is positive. Punitive, demeaning, authoritarian interactions cannot be used to teach. Learning requires our brains to be calm and engaged in order to happen.

A child can’t learn when they’re in a defensive state, because they don’t feel safe.

Our brain disengages the area responsible for learning and reroutes all the energy that would be used to learn into keeping us safe.

This is why in ParentAbility we focus so much on skill-building.

Most things children need to know how to do in order to behave boil down to one of the 8 executive functioning categories we focus on. Not ALL, but most.

If you can support your child in developing those skills PRIOR to them needing to use them, when you give them a direction…you just have to teach the mechanics of the task vs all the underlying skills that go along with it.

We make a plan to help them fill in their knowledge gaps ahead of time so that when we DO need to use behavior modification- like the LCP- our kids respond much quicker and with much less effort because they have the underlying skills all ready to do what we’re asking them to do.

Discipline is a much more holistic way to look at raising children. Instead of constantly being behind the eight-ball trying to play catch up by getting angry at them for doing something they’ve already done…we stop trying to chase them, turn around, and look at what needs to change so that it doesn’t reoccur going forward.

We focus on discipline instead of punishment.

I know it feels like a very minor distinction, but once you grasp the difference and change your focus, life becomes so much easier! Your relationship with your child improves. You feel much less stressed and burnt out because parenting gets easier.

Discipline is SO MUCH easier than punishment.

So what do you think? Did anyone have an AHA moment? Anybody realizing that they’ve been punishing instead of disciplining?

If you’re overwhelmed with switching to discipline, I’ve got your back. There are two things I suggest you do: first, download my scripts for crazy-making behavior. You’ll notice how simple it is to switch to discipline when you use those scripts. It’s really just a tiny tweak but it makes ALL the difference.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Drop me a comment.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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