Punishment vs. Discipline

Punishment vs. Discipline

By Christina Orfanakos MSW, RSW

 Although many parents use “punishment” and “discipline” interchangeably, they are very different. One operates from a place of fear and can deliver short-term results; the other focuses on teaching kids to behave in appropriate ways and holds them accountable for their behavior in a way that works for the long term.

Punishment is defined as “pain, suffering or loss, inflicted because of an offense.” OUCH. Punishment can also be defined as anything that causes children to experience blame, shame or pain.

Punishment can work, (and I use the term “work” lightly) that’s why you may hear some parents say, “but it gets me what I want.” Or “the behaviour stopped, so it must be effective.” BUT, and there will always be a “but” when it comes to punishment…its “effectiveness” is merely short-term relief and only teaches children to “obey” out of fear. It is not effective for long-term behaviour change.

When children are operating on fear, they naturally revert to a mode of self-defense and are NOT thinking about how they can make a better choice in the future. Parents who use punishment often find themselves punishing over and over for the same behavior. That tells us it’s not working! Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!! Crazy making right??!??!

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that we could make kids do better by making them feel worse?”            Jane Nelsen, Ph.D.

The idea that “punishment” has an important place in the rearing of children is misleading. Too often punishment is used to satisfy the need of adults. Children often cannot understand what they have done wrong and as a result, are unable to learn from being punished.

What’s important to keep in mind, especially when you’re about ready to pull your own hair out, is that:

Children don’t want to misbehave! Misbehavior is always a symptom of something else.

 Discipline, means a “learner, pupil or student.” Our job as parents is to teach our children, not to make them “feel worse.” Discipline works because children don’t have to be fearful. They know that they will be held accountable for behavior, but it’s not going to involve blame, shame or pain.

Most children will learn how to behave well if the environment in which they grow up is nurturing and caring. Building on the parent-child relationship is also key to using discipline well.

This can be done by using loving, gentle touches, spending time together, respecting your child’s feelings, keeping your promises, apologizing when necessary and having fun together.

Children are more likely to grow up behaving well if they are:

  • Loved, valued and told how important they are
  • Shown how to behave well because the adults around them behave well
  • Not expected to behave in ways which are beyond their developmental capacities
  • Given clear rules
  • Supervised well and kept occupied with 
appropriate activities
  • Provided with predictable and sensible routines
  • Having their physical and emotional needs well attended to

Things that encourage positive behaviour:

  • Positive attention (hugs and praise) given for acceptable behaviour is more effective than criticism and punishment for things the child gets wrong
  • Ignore minor misbehaviour and intervene only when there are serious problems or a child is in danger. Children learn to tune out or turn off when they are constantly “being told.” Their self- esteem suffers if they never get anything “right”


  • Ensure the child understands how you would you like them to behave, not just what they have done wrong. “Don’t” is a dirty word, use it less.
  • Clear communication is basic to effective discipline. If children do not hear or understand your message, they cannot do what is asked of them. Therefore, it is important to gain the child’s attention and to keep the message short and specific

Most important to remember when building relationships with our children and using effective discipline is that each child has a different personality and a different set of needs. Parents and caregivers need to adapt to their child’s personality and needs.

                                                 –Christina MSW, RSW 




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