It is a common misconception that punishment and discipline are one and the same. The root of the word “discipline” is “disciple,” which means “student.” So to discipline a child means to teach them. So the real question here is whether or not punishment can help children learn.
Punishment and pain
The word “punishment” also carries certain connotations with it, so I think it would be helpful to define this as well. I picture punishment as an angry parent spanking their child, or otherwise inflicting pain. I don’t think that this can really help kids learn. Pain is often a great teacher, but not when it comes in the form of outside punishment, and not when it is unrelated to the mistake.
I know that for me, even as an adult, pain is still the best teacher. For instance, at the end of my bachelor’s degree I had a class that I almost didn’t pass. We had one huge assignment for the whole semester that made up most of the grade, and I disagreed with the teacher’s expectations for it. So I ended up doing it my way, and it almost cost me my degree!
So when I started my master’s degree, I was very careful to always follow my professors’ instructions precisely and ended up getting straight As. Thus, the pain of almost losing something that was very valuable to me taught me an important lesson.
Kids can learn from pain in multiple ways from their mistakes–whether it is by losing friends because they were rude, or feeling remorse for hurting someone’s feelings. Losing friends as a result of one’s mistake is a natural consequence. But feeling remorse comes from having a conscience. Parents can encourage both of these types of learning, but in different ways.
How do you discipline your child?
First, parents can allow their children to experience natural consequences for their actions. Basically this means that they get out of the way—they stop stepping in and making everything okay when things go wrong.
Second, parents can instill good values in their children from their own example. In his classic parenting book Between Parent and Child: New Solutions to Old Problems, Dr. Haim Ginott said:
Values cannot be taught directly. They are absorbed, and become part of the child, only through identification with, and emulation of, persons who gain his or her love and respect.
What do you do when your child misbehaves?
There is another type of disciplining (teaching) that is just as important–socialization, to somehow make it so that your child, when they are no longer a child, can function in society as an adult.
This is quite different from instilling values or allowing natural consequences. It is more like training. You use positive and negative reinforcement–rewards for good behavior, and loss of privileges for bad behavior.
Basically, you want to set up a mini, orderly society by creating rules, and consistently upholding them with consequences. As a parent, you act as the government in your home, and your children are the citizens. They enjoy privileges that you supply, but if they are not rule-abiding citizens, they lose these privileges.
When withdrawing privileges, do so in a calm, consistent way. Don’t be angry or punishing, as this builds resentment and prevents your child from feeling your love. For younger children, time-out is a good way to go. For older children, you can take away their phones or video games. We’ve got an insightful article that explains how to do this step-by-step that we suggest you read next.