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What Is the Difference Between Discipline and Punishment?
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The words “discipline” and “punishment” are sometimes used interchangeably. But they are very different. Let’s explore the difference between discipline and punishment and how each one can impact our children.

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Discipline vs. Punishment

Discipline focuses on positively teaching children how to make good choices and control their actions. It's a long-term process that helps children develop self-control, empathy, and an understanding of how to act appropriately in social situations. The goals of discipline include growth, learning, and positive behavior change. Examples of discipline strategies are:

  • Time-outs

  • Redirection and distraction

  • Logical consequences, such as separating children who are fighting

Punishment, on the other hand, centers on the consequences of a child's bad behavior. Punishment is typically short-term and aims to make children feel bad for their actions and discourage them from repeating the behavior. Punishment can result in fear, anxiety, and resentment toward the caregiver dispensing it. Examples of punishment strategies are:

  • Taking away a loved toy or other treat

  • Implementing a strict routine that limits the child’s freedom

  • Assigning extra chores

Should Parents Use Both Tactics?

Experts generally recommend using discipline strategies over punishment. Research has shown that discipline is more effective at encouraging positive behavior and creating a healthy caregiver-child relationship. Punishment can have unintended negative consequences, such as reduced self-esteem and increased aggression, while also potentially decreasing the child’s trust in their caregiver.

However, the choice ultimately depends on your specific parenting style and beliefs. If you decide to use punishment, it is important to limit its use and balance it with a good measure of discipline-based strategies. Experts recommend maintaining love and trust with your child by explaining that your actions aim to help them learn and grow rather than harm or belittle them. 

Importantly, experts advise that caregivers should never use extremely harsh language or physical punishment, like hitting or spanking, with their children. When parents use harsh words or physical punishment, it can negatively affect children’s brain and emotional development. This can lead to children feeling upset, sad, or even angry, which can actually increase misbehavior and decrease mental health.

Discipline vs. Punishment in Action

We’ve provided a few common scenarios when caregivers will likely need to help guide their child’s behavior. While punishment should be used as minimally as possible, it can be applied when a child continues to do the unacceptable behavior, even after the discipline approach has been used.

Scenario 1: A 4-year-old has an outburst in the store when denied a toy they wanted.

  • Discipline approach: The caregiver allows the child to express their emotions and validates their big feelings. They explain why the child cannot have the toy and then redirect the child’s attention to something else.

  • Punishment approach: If the child isn’t able to be redirected and the child’s behavior could result in harm to themselves or others, the caregiver can try strictly enforcing a consequence such as not allowing the child to play with their favorite toy at home that day or not allowing a special treat, like visiting the park.

Scenario 2: A 3-year-old refuses to finish their vegetables during a meal.

  • Discipline approach: The caregiver engages in a conversation with the child about the importance of eating vegetables for their health and growth. Instead of forcing them to eat what's on their plate, they might offer different vegetables in the future or try to present them in a more appealing way. 

  • Punishment approach: If the child will not try any vegetables after many different attempts by the caregiver to make vegetables more appealing, the caregiver might enforce a “no dessert” rule, not allowing their child dessert until they finish their vegetables.

Scenario 4: A 5-year-old lies about completing their chores.

  • Discipline approach: The caregiver sits down with the child and discusses why honesty is so important, even when they make mistakes. They emphasize the values of responsibility and trust and help the child understand the importance of completing chores.

  • Punishment approach: If the child repeatedly lies about completing their chores over time, the caregiver can try taking away the child's favorite toy or electronic device for a period of time as a consequence of lying.

As you help guide your child through these different scenarios and more, it’s important to always focus on creating a supportive environment that maintains love and trust between the child and caregiver.

First 5 California
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First 5 California
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