Discipline versus punishment

The recent case involving a famous American Footballer and how he chose to punish his 4-year-old son – by apparently hitting him with branches from a tree – raises the question of how we parent our children. All of us who are parents or who are involved with children play a vital role in their lives and whether we chose to discipline or punish children will have a major impact on their development and attitudes – both to themselves and to others.

The words punishment and discipline are often used interchangeably. However, they have very different meanings when it comes to teaching children appropriate behaviour. The word discipline means “to teach.” Discipline creates a learning process for the child. Children learn appropriate behaviours when a parent sets appropriate rules or limits, coupled with age-appropriate, non-violent, consequences which are enforced if the child breaks the rules or does not stick to the agreed limits (e.g. the time by which they must come home).

Discipline teaches children:

• That actions produce consequences

• Good behaviour results in positive consequences

• Bad behaviour results in negative consequences

• We are all held accountable for our choices

Parents who give punishments hope that their children will not repeat the bad behaviour. The reasoning behind punishment is that pain must be felt in order to be effective. The problem with punishment is that when the child continues to misbehave, the severity of the punishment must also increase.

Because the punishment, (example: spanking) is rarely connected to the actual misbehaviour (damaging school property) the child learns nothing about real life consequences.

Punishment teaches children:

• To be afraid or resent authority

• To lie

• How to do things without getting caught

Some consequences are natural and require little intervention from the parent. If a child refuses to eat supper, he will be hungry by bedtime. If the parent allows him to go to bed hungry he will have learned the consequence (cause and effect).

Issue: Child keeps leaving his jacket at school

Natural consequence: He waits for the bus the next morning without his jacket.

When there are no naturally occurring consequences, the imposed consequences must be enforceable, fit the offence, and be laid down firmly.

Sometimes imposed consequences might look like punishments, but when carried out without anger or threats and connected to the child’s misbehaviour, the consequences are clear and lessons are learned.

Parents following through and enforcing consequences while also showing empathy teaches children that even though they make mistakes they are still loved.

In applying or enforcing discipline, it is always vital that the child understands that it is their behaviour which we do not like and find unacceptable, rather than the child himself or herself.


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