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Discipline Vs. Punishment for Parents

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Learn to discipline your child without punishment, and give them skills for life.

The words punishment and discipline are sometimes used interchangeably. People make the mistake of thinking both words mean the same thing. However, there are two kinds of discipline — positive discipline and negative discipline (1).

With positive discipline, you teach a child how to correct their behavior and make better choices to prevent misbehavior.

Negative discipline is what we also call punishment. Punishment is about causing some form of suffering to your child in retaliation for their misbehavior.

That’s not to say discipline should be entirely positive for your child. There can still be negative consequences for a child’s behaviors. But there should be a clear learning moment in those negative consequences.

Let’s look at discipline vs. punishment to give a broader understanding of the concepts.

Key Takeaways

  • Discipline teaches children about rules, making good choices, and understanding consequences, while punishment only causes suffering for misbehavior.
  • The main types of discipline are boundary-based, positive, behavior modification, emotion coaching, and gentle discipline, which can be chosen based on the situation.
  • Effective discipline involves being a positive role model, using positive reinforcement, being consistent, and adapting to age-appropriate methods.
  • Focusing on discipline instead of punishment helps children become responsible, confident, and respectful adults who understand the consequences of their actions.

What Is Punishment?

Punishment is an entirely negative consequence given in response to a child’s action. Punishment may stop the behavior at the moment, but it will not teach your child the skills they need to make better choices in the future.

The Problems With Punishment

Punishment is, by its nature, negative, and it can be a source of confusion for a child. This is especially true if a caregiver’s words and actions don’t align (2).

Let’s look at an example. If your children have gotten into a physical fight, and you pull them apart, shout at them for fighting, and spank them both, this is the likely outcome:

  • Your child learns it is OK for you to use physical violence against them but not for them to use it against someone else.
  • You’ll miss the opportunity to teach your child how to resolve a conflict without resorting to violence.
  • You’ve implied your child cannot control themselves and that you must take control of their feelings for them.
I discuss this frequently with parents who express concern about their infant or toddler hitting them or others. At this age, such behavior is learned by imitation. I often discover parents are using a “tap the hand” punishment technique. Parents fail to realize that this tactic, seemingly benign to them, is the reason that their child hits.
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Editor's Note:

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

If a child is hit or shouted at every time they do something wrong, there are some negative consequences that naturally take place (3):

  • They become fearful of their caregiver.
  • They actively choose to pursue negative behaviors because they figure they are going to get into trouble anyway.
  • They may begin to suffer from anxiety because the smallest misstep can result in punishment.
  • They start to think of themselves as bad people instead of as people who have made some bad choices but are still good.
  • They often internalize and harbor resentment toward the person who is punishing them.

Take Note

Furthermore, research shows that punishment, both verbal and physical, causes toxic stress. Early exposure to such stress can cause suboptimal brain development and lead to depression later on in life (4).

What Is Discipline?

When thinking about punishment versus discipline, keep positivity in mind.

Discipline is an inherently more positive way of dealing with a child who misbehaves. Instead of punishing a child for making a bad decision, disciplining a child teaches them to make the right choice for themselves (5).

What Are the Five Types of Discipline?

There are five major types of discipline (6). You shouldn’t just choose one and stick to it because some situations require stronger discipline than others.

Instead, you can pick and choose between the five types of discipline to suit the specific situation.

1. Boundary-Based Discipline

Using boundary-based discipline means establishing a set of rules. Your child will have the choice to obey the rules or face the consequences.

How does this work in the real world? You might have a child who refuses to clean up their toys. To deal with this using boundary-based discipline, you would set up a rule your child must comply with and a consequence if they do not follow through.

In this case, you could say, “If you do not clean up your toys, then you can’t watch TV after dinner.”

This clearly lays out a choice for your child. They can do what is asked of them or choose not to. But if they choose not to, there will be consequences.

2. Positive Discipline

Some people view positive discipline as “soft” or letting the child take the lead. However, sometimes, you get the best results by working with your child and steering them toward forming their own solutions.

Imagine again that your child says they don’t want to pick up their toys. A positive discipline approach might involve you acknowledging they do not want to clean up. You would then say, “While I understand your feelings, leaving their toys on the floor is not an option.”

At this point, you ask your child what they think you can both do to help them pick up their toys.

This is not the same as asking your child to pick up their toys, having them rudely refuse, and then doing it yourself. It is showing your child you respect their feelings on the matter, but that the rules must be followed, so they need to find a way to follow them.

3. Behavior Modification

Behavior modification involves praising your child and reinforcing good behavior while ignoring the bad.

With the child who will not pick up the toys, you might remind them that they go to the park in the afternoon, but only after they have picked up. If your child then decides to clean up, they receive praise for doing so and get their regular trip to the park.

If they respond with negative behavior or refuse to do so, you ignore that behavior and keep them from going to the park.

4. Emotion Coaching

Emotion coaching is a form of discipline that focuses on helping children recognize and identify their emotions (7).

At its core is the theory that both parents and children are free to experience any emotions. You don’t tell your child they should feel a particular way. Instead, it is the parents’ responsibility to observe their child and make the connections between behavior and emotions.

Parents should then connect with their child but not ignore the misbehavior. Following this, you help your child label their emotions and work together to find ways to deal with their feelings.

In the “pick up your toys” example, you would tell your child that you recognize they are upset about cleaning. You would then encourage them to share their feelings with you before moving on to find a solution that results in them picking up the toys but that is also respectful of their feelings.

5. Gentle Discipline

Gentle discipline relies on redirection to help prevent children from indulging in bad behavior. It can be especially effective with younger children who are not yet old enough to understand the concept of actions and consequences.

Gentle discipline is most useful in response to moments of bad behavior. If your child was to have a tantrum instead of putting their toys away, you might turn the tidying into a game.

The idea is to break the moment of misbehavior and redirect your child’s energy in a more positive direction.

The Benefits of Discipline

Discipline fosters a more positive relationship with your child. It shows them the world can be a fair place with consistent rules that are applied justly. Discipline also teaches your child that they are responsible for their own behavior and that any negative consequences are wholly attributable to their actions.

How Do You Discipline and Not Punish?

It can be difficult to discipline and not punish, especially if you were punished rather than disciplined yourself as a child.

However, discipline takes many forms, and how to discipline a child more effectively is an ever-evolving journey for most parents. Nobody is perfect, and even with the best of intentions, a punishment can occur in the heat of the moment.

So how do you use discipline instead of punishment?

Be A Role Model

Modeling good behavior for your child is a crucial component of effective discipline (8). If you are unable to behave correctly, follow the rules, control or funnel your emotions, and make good choices, how can you expect the same from your child?

As well as behaving in a way that sets a good example, you should also be honest about your own mistakes. If you “slip” and make a bad behavioral choice, acknowledge that to your child. Tell them you chose the wrong path. Then explain how you wish you had made the right decision.

An adult who is able to acknowledge their mistakes and apologize is an excellent role model.

Use a Positive Approach and Positive Reinforcement

Whenever possible, point out the good behaviors your child displays, and praise them for making good decisions.

Instead of taking something away as a punishment, give something to reward the positive. This can be as simple as staying up a half-hour later than usual or a spontaneous trip to the park.

Try not to tie these positive reinforcements directly to one good thing or to refrain from overtly negative behavior.

Don’t say, “You didn’t fight with your sister today. Well done, let’s go to the park.”

Instead, you’ll say, “I see you and your sister have been getting along better this week. That’s nice to see. How about we celebrate with a trip to the park?”

Be Consistent

The importance of consistency can’t be stressed enough. A child who is allowed to do something one day should not be disciplined for doing the same thing the next day.

If rules do have to change, explain to your child that the rule has changed. When appropriate, also tell them why the rule has changed. Then tell your child what they are expected to do instead, and have them explain the entire thing back to you to demonstrate their understanding.

Finally, depending on the reasons for the change, consider giving them a free pass or warning on the first breaking of a new or changed rule. This is especially helpful if something that has long been established as acceptable suddenly becomes something they can no longer do. They may need a bit of a learning curve.

As stated in this video, it is important for all caregivers to be consistent with the plan for discipline. When, for example, parents, babysitters, and extended relatives have different expectations and strategies, the child receives mixed messages and does not know how to behave.

Reevaluate Age-Appropriateness and Parental Goals

Your approach needs to be age-appropriate, so it is fine to change things as your child gets older and as your parental goals change (9).

You may feel that playing in the backyard unsupervised is not appropriate for your young child. However, as your child gets a little older, you may realize you don’t need to be there to supervise their behavior.

As a result, you may need to teach your child that they can’t go outside without you when they’re young. Or perhaps they are only allowed to go to your fenced-in backyard, not the sidewalk in your front yard, or to take a walk down the block.

Disciplining a younger child for breaking your set of rules when outside of the home can be problematic. They may not have the maturity to understand the difference. It may require more vigilance on your part.

However, an older child will be able to process the difference in rules about going outside, and it would be appropriate to discipline them if they repeatedly broke the rule (10).

Opt for Discipline Whenever Possible

Using discipline instead of punishment does not mean giving free rein to your child and allowing them to do what they like.

Instead, discipline is about teaching your child that when they choose to behave in a particular way, those choices have consequences. They will also learn that they are responsible for those consequences and that, if they do not like them, they should not make bad choices in the first place.

By fostering such an atmosphere in your home, you are giving your child autonomy. This helps them become positive, confident, respectful adults who take responsibility for their actions.

Discipline includes multiple factors:

  • Teaching your child the skills they need to handle many situations, and their own wants, needs, and emotions.
  • Modeling good behavior and choices yourself.
  • Providing consistency so your child is clear about the rules and the behavior expected from them.

With this approach, you will be providing your child with skills for life.

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Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP is board certified in General Pediatrics and began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts. Leah Alexander has been featured on Healthline, Verywell Fit, Romper, and other high profile publications.