What's the difference between punishment and discipline?

Oct 12, 2022
gentle parenting

I was talking to my husband the other day about my emails – he’s a loyal supporter of my work and is on my mailing list.

He said "That one you wrote about whether you should discipline your child was great" 

"Do you mean the one with the title:

‘Should you ever punish a child?" 

"Yes, that one.. I really thought it was good” 

"But punishment isn't the same as discipline you know!"

"Oh yes, I forgot!" 

I realised that it is easy to mix up the two.

Discipline can have a nasty connotation – as in: “That child needs disciplining”

Yet the word discipline comes from the Latin – disciplina means teaching, learning, instructing  

Discipulus – means disciple or pupil

And of course we need to teach our children so many things – we can teach by modelling, helping them to learn, encouraging them, finding things that interest them.

So that's why I use the term Positive Discipline

Many people use discipline and punishment interchangeably

They are NOT the same thing.

In order to teach we mustn't ever punish.

Punishment is not only damaging to our relationship with our child and it builds fear and resentment, but it is also damaging to the brain.

How does the brain react to fear? Think seeing a rat running across the kitchen.

For most of us, without thinking we'd scream and jump on the table or run out of the room. (At least that’s what I’d do!).

So the fear triggers an alarm without first using our thinking brain. This is called fight-or-flight mechanism.

After that initial response you might think – “Hmm, I’m probably not doing much to get rid of the rat by standing on the table” at which point our thinking brain has kicked in.

Frequent fear is not good for the brain.

We must remember that children, especially but not exclusively toddlers and pre-schoolers are impulsive, curious, fearless and egocentric.

They are full of emotions, they don’t stop to think, and they don’t understand why they’re expected to behave in a certain way.

Here’s an example for you.

When my eldest was 4, he and I went on a special trip to the science museum. We had a lovely time together.

At the end of the visit, we had that inevitable exit via the gift shop, so we bought a little astronaut that had a spongy texture.  We also bought one to give his best friend Henry.

All good.

Back at home I left him playing with the astronaut and after a few minutes he came in showing me that he’d broken it in half and asked if he could have Henry’s one.

What was my knee-jerk reaction?

I wanted to punish him – without thinking (because that’s what we adults do under pressure) this is what I said:

“Well that’s no way to treat your toys. I can’t believe you did that. Right, I’m never buying you anything again and NO you can’t have Henry’s one, how ridiculous that you should even ask!”

He cried, he punched me, and told me I was mean.

He didn’t accept any responsibility and it was a horrible exchange between us.

I told the story a few days later in my parenting class.

A dad was there and he said "I can just imagine doing that when I was little, kids are really curious, they like to see how far things bend and he probably had no idea it was going to break”

Well you can imagine how bad I felt when he gave me that perspective.

So I decided to review it “I was thinking about your astronaut man.  When you were playing with it, I wonder if you were trying to see how far you could bend it?”

He looked at me and welled up. “I didn’t know it would break mummy. I feel so sad. I miss him, please can I have Henry's one?"

I didn't feel it was right to let him have Henry's astronaut but we had a cuddle and I told him I was really sorry I'd shouted at him and I explained that when we buy a present for a friend, we must give it to them, even if we break ours.

He understood and the good thing was that he accepted my apology.

Our connection with our kids is SO important.

Back to the concept of discipline – here are a few principles for Positive Discipline (remember it means to teach and help learn).

  1. Kids are sponges - so the more positive we are with them, the better they will respond. Scientists have discovered the mirror neuron system in the brain which allows us to imitate others' actions and understand the intentions of the action

So we need to be a good role model and do things like:

  • Show respect to them in the way we talk to them – our tone of voice and the words we use
  • Show kindness to them and to others – so we need to model doing kind things to others and never speaking badly of others in their earshot

  1. Have clear routines and boundaries and consistently stick with them – much misbehaviour is because kids are unclear about where they stand and we’re inconsistent with our routines. When they start to resist or push back, it is often because they don’t know where they stand and kicking up a fuss has, in the past, meant that we change our minds. Be prepared to stand firm but in a positive, non-threatening way.

“I know you want to carry on playing your game, it’s hard to stop.  Remember what happens at 6pm? What’s it time for now?”
By keeping to a daily routine that everyone is clear about, kids feel much more secure.

  1. Use positive reinforcement – when we notice and mention what kids ARE doing (rather than what they aren’t doing), it is motivating to them. Instead of doing this with broad brush ‘Good boy’ or ‘Great job’ we need to train ourselves to notice the small things and relate it and the impact back to the child ‘Hey, you picked up your socks and put them into the laundry basket, that’s a great first step with tidying up your clothes. It feels good to keep our things clean and tidy’
  2. Avoid all threats - positive discipline means that we avoid all threats ‘If you don’t do X then Y will happen’ and instead we turn it around so that kids are aware of the cause and effect. ‘When you’ve tidied up your toys, then you get to watch some TV’ – a natural consequence of kids refusing to tidy up is that the TV doesn’t happen.
  3. Use active consequences – help kids to make amends, so if a child has damaged property, get them to help repair it or be involved in replacing it. This might mean donating some pocket money or doing jobs to earn the money to pay for it.  If they’ve physically hurt someone else, support them to do a ‘sorry’ drawing or stroke or put some cream on the damaged area

I hope you find this helpful.

I have so many other resources that you might find useful - check out the Resources to grab section of my website!

Want to learn a framework for positive discipline? Then my video course   is for you!  For only £49, in 5 short video lessons, you'll get a system for positively motivating your kids to listen to you, follow instructions and do what you’ve asked without ever needing to nag or shout.


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