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Parenting Basics: The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Parenting is one of the most rewarding experiences in life.

It’s also one of the most challenging.

Along with the laughter, joy, and love, children bring into the lives of their parents, they also bring tears, tantrums, and frustration. It’s up to parents to guide children into adulthood, give them the fundamental tools they need to make their way in the world, and prepare them for the myriad adventures life will bring them.

Behavior Modification

One of the most challenging things parents need figure out along the way is how they’re going to deal with behavior issues. Teachers and educators often learn behavior modification strategies to handle behavioral issues. Most receive training in college or professional development workshops to help them develop their approach to children. Anyone who has children, however, knows that there is no such thing as parenting school. Though there are parenting workshops and books that offer advice on everything parenting related, children do not come into the world with instruction manuals specific to them.

That’s why parents have to answer scores of questions for themselves. From relatively small ones like “How am I going to get my child to clean up their room?” and “How am I going to get this picky child to eat broccoli?” to bigger ones like “How am I going to teach my child to stop hitting other children?” or “how can I convince my teenager that skipping class is not the best choice?” parents have to come up with answers every day, often on the spot.

The bottom line is that parents have a lot of choices to make, and they’re not all easy.

At the core of the behavior management issue is a question that’s important for parents to ask themselves: what is the difference between discipline and punishment? Understanding the answer to this question can form the basis for dealing with a wide range of behaviors. It can also give parents the tools to address challenging behaviors in positive and productive ways.

Discipline and Punishment in Parenting

In a recent article, the parenting resource website Very Well Family identified some basic differences between discipline and punishment:

  1. Discipline teaches children. Punishment arbitrarily controls their behavior.
  2. Discipline develops a sense of right and wrong because children understand the reasons behind the rules, and why the behavior in question is unacceptable. Punishment short-circuits learning by cutting children out of the learning process altogether. All they know is that they are in trouble, and they often don’t know the reason.
  3. Discipline creates an environment where the parent and child learn together. Punishment creates an authoritarian environment where neither the parent nor the child learn. Rules simply exist, and there is a total absence of communication about them.

The main thing for parents to take away from those three differences is that effective discipline helps focus on positive communication between parents and children. Punishment, on the other hand, often completely shuts down channels of communication.

Tools for Parents: Rules and Outcomes

Research shows that instead of punishing children, a productive and far more effective way to handle behavior issues is to define clear outcomes – also known as consequences – that will follow any behavior a parent determines unacceptable. A helpful handbook written by childcare experts at Virginia Polytechnic Institute outlined the following guidelines for establishing rules and consequences:

  • It’s important that parents explain rules and consequences without anger or excess emotion.
  • It’s essential for parents to allow their children to make their own choices with regards to rules and consequences.
  • Parents should understand there are different types of consequences:
    • Natural consequences teach children to learn for themselves. They learn from things that happen to them as they make their way through the world, as opposed to things that are enforced externally by parents or teachers.
    • Logical consequences are consequences created by parents. It’s essential that these consequences are directly connected to the behavior in question, and that children understand what they are and why they’re in place.

As children grow and start to test boundaries, it can be easy to forget the joy, laughter and love they brought when they were little. When children start to challenge authority in the home, it’s easy to forget about all the wonderful things about parenting and focus on the negative.

Parents and Kids Learn Together

An approach to behavior issues that stresses communication – the rules and consequences approach – can help show parents that most of the time when kids make mistakes, they’re simply trying to understand and navigate the world around them. The conversations that result when parents engage their children in dialogue around rules and consequences can be fun, funny, and educational for parents and children. However, these conversations rarely happen when parents take the my way or the highway approach. Parents who take the time to listen to their kids will benefit from doing so. They see the joy, laughter, and love they remember from the early years. At the same time, they’ll remember that they, too, are learning about life and the world in new ways every day.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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