We hear the words “punishment” and “discipline” tossed around in parenting circles like they are synonymous. “He needs more discipline,” says the passerby at the store. “What is her punishment for breaking that vase?” asks the onlooking grandparent. The concepts of punishment and discipline, while similar, represent two very different approaches to parenting. By examining these two concepts, we can gain insight into how our approach to children’s behavior really reflects our overall style of parenting as well.

Why Punishment and Discipline Aren’t the Same

The core difference between punishment and discipline can be traced back to the words themselves. The definition of punishment is: “A penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.” The root word “punish” is derived from the Latin pūnīre, meaning “penalty” or “pain.” 

In contrast, the word “discipline” has a very different meaning. The definition of discipline is: Training by instruction and exercise. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplīna, meaning “instruction.”

Now, this is not just an exercise in word origins. The words themselves tell us a lot about the differences between these two concepts. Punishment has almost completely to do with pain or penalty, while discipline has more to do with instruction or training. Thus, at their very core, these two concepts focus on two very different approaches when we think about children’s behavior. Punishment focuses on penalizing a child for misbehavior or a mistake. The idea is that punishment would presumably act as a deterrent to the child from repeating that action. Discipline, on the other hand, focuses solely on teaching or instruction. Disciples are those who follow their leader’s guidance. When we discipline a child, therefore, we provide instruction and guidance in the hopes that they will not make the same mistake again.

As you can see, a parenting approach that focuses on punishment has more to do with deterrence than instruction. When a parent emphasizes discipline, they rely more on instructing the child and acting as a mentor in the child’s acquisition of appropriate behavior.


Why is Discipline More Effective?

Although we now understand the difference between these two concepts, the question still remains–which of these approaches is most helpful for children’s development? Luckily, we have decades of research to help clarify the answer. Over the past several decades, researchers have found compelling evidence to suggest that punishment, especially harsh punishment, does not yield positive outcomes for children. Harsh physical punishment like spanking, in particular, has been evaluated in hundreds of studies. The clear consensus of those findings is that physical punishment is not only ineffective, but also harmful to children’s development.

Beyond physical punishment, however, other punishments like yelling, taking away privileges, or verbal aggression are also generally viewed as less effective than more positive disciplinary strategies. Specifically, these types of harsh punishments have been linked to emotional problems such as anxiety and depression in children. 

Perhaps the most compelling reason why child development experts prefer discipline to punishment is the fact that it is a skill-building approach. In contrast to punishment, which attempts to deter a child from certain behaviors, discipline emphasizes the skills the child needs to improve and the behaviors that are appropriate. Just as the definition of discipline implies, it emphasizes the teaching role that parents play for their children. Instead of simply telling children what not to do, a disciplined approach helps kids understand what to do instead. Indeed, one hallmark of effective discipline is that it teaches children skills they need now and for a lifetime. Skills like emotional regulation, getting along with others, and respect will help children not only meet parents’ expectations but function well in life as adults.

Moving to Discipline

If you find the case for a disciplined approach to parenting compelling, it’s never too late to move in that direction. Moving from a punishment model of parenting to a discipline model might require a bit of a mindset shift. Here are a few tips to get you started down the path of discipline-based parenting: 

  • Focus on Skills: Since discipline is a skill-building approach, it’s helpful to identify some of the skills you’d like to help your child develop. Through effective discipline, we can help our children grow in a number of life and emotional skills that they will need throughout their whole life. These could include skills like managing emotions, showing respect, problem-solving, and cooperation. With skills such as these identified, you will be able to more easily find ways to incorporate ways to build these skills as you discipline and guide your children.
  • Positive Reinforcement: One foundational piece of disciplining children is the concept of reinforcing or praising positive behavior. Whereas a punishment-based approach attempts to deter misbehavior, a discipline-based approach focuses on “catching children being good.” In other words, keep an eye out for when your child exhibits positive behavior and offer praise or encouragement for that behavior. This takes some practice. Many of us are naturally conditioned to focus our attention on the negative aspects of our children’s behavior. By focusing on positive behavior, we not only help reinforce this, but we also help build a stronger emotional connection with our child. 
  • Appropriate Expectations: Another key to moving toward a disciplined approach to parenting is having age-appropriate expectations for children’s behavior. You might ask yourself, “is my child really capable of doing the thing that I am asking?” or “is my child capable of acting the way I expect in this setting?” With a little knowledge of child development, it’s possible to know a bit more about what to expect of your child at each stage. For example, it’s probably not reasonable to expect a toddler to sit quietly and still for an extended time while waiting for an appointment. By holding appropriate expectations for our children, we can avoid some situations that we know would be difficult for them. We can also be better prepared to cope with their behavior when we expect that they might struggle in certain situations. In this way, appropriate expectations form a strong foundation upon which more hands-on discipline strategies might not even be needed.

Parenting as a Relationship

Taking a step back, we realize that the big picture of parenting is really all about relationships. Parenting a child is not a job or even just a duty; it’s a relationship. The key difference between approaching parenting from a stance of discipline versus punishment is the focus on maintaining and strengthening the relationship. Discipline helps guide a child while still fostering a strong relationship. Punishment, on the other hand, often promotes fear, which can undermine the relationship. Ultimately, children will emulate those with whom they feel strongly bonded. Discipline helps foster bonding in a way that still provides guidance and instruction.

Preview Blurb: Should I use discipline or punishment? What’s the difference? How will it impact my child? There are SO many questions about managing children’s behavior these days. Read on to understand the difference between discipline and punishment and why it even matters. It might just change the way you parent your child!

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

About the Author

More than just Coding and Math! Our proprietary, activity-based curriculum with live, real-time instruction facilitates: Problem Solving. Creative Thinking. Grit. Confidence. Communication