Discipline Versus Punishment: Mistakes Parents Make

A few weeks ago, I was intrigued when I saw an article on Huntington Post entitled, “Why Everything We Know About Discipline Is Wrong.” As I read more, I was soon nodding in agreement. My own experiences with parents I’ve coached have proven how easy it is for them to react erroneously when their children misbehave, so often because parents confuse discipline with punishment.

There’s a world of difference between the two

I’ve found that positive discipline teaches children how to act…what the difference is between right and wrong. It’s about teaching, guiding, and training. Discipline should make sense to children. Discipline helps children feel good about themselves. It gives them the chance to correct mistakes. It puts them in charge of their own actions and to behave appropriately.

Punishment, on the other hand, tells children that they are bad and, in an effort to change behavior, causes children pain, discomfort, or other repercussions. It’s about fear and control. It does not tell them what to do instead of the bad behavior.

Because punishment usually has nothing to do with what children do wrong, it really doesn’t make sense to them. That’s why it often works only for the short term to temporarily dissuade children from misbehaving. Children learn that their parents will make their lives miserable if they don’t follow the rules, but they do not learn why those rules exist. In fact, quite the opposite may happen when they might learn to be sneaky so they won’t get caught. Translation in a kid’s mind: “I can sneak around and misbehave when nobody’s watching.” Not an ideal consequence, right?

So, what’s a parent to do?

Parents I talk to often ask, “How do we choose a consequence when our children misbehave? Why are consequences so important to the discipline process?” My answer is to, “Remember the goal of the consequence!” After all, we want our kids to learn from their actions, whether they are positive or negative. This is actually the goal of positive discipline.

A real-life example: Your 9-year-old boy is throwing a ball around the living room and knocks over a plant. He knows the ball is an outside toy, but chose to ignore that rule. Clearly, if you do nothing the plant will die, and there will be a huge, dirty mess on the floor. Option 1: You choose a punishment and take away his TV or computer privileges…and he learns nothing about the misbehavior (not to use that ball in the house). Option 2: You allow him to choose a punishment from your predetermined list…and it becomes a game. Option 3 (preferred): However, if you have him clean up the mess, look after the plant while it re-establishes itself, and have him use some or all of his allowance to buy a new plant if it dies, he will have learned why he needs to be careful when he plays in the house.

In this example, if the parent had chosen to use punishment, in the future this boy will simply try to avoid getting caught. (“I didn’t knock over the plant. The dog did it.”) But, because this parent used discipline instead, the child learned why rules exist…and he can make responsible decisions about future situations. (“Bouncing a ball in the house is irresponsible, causing damage, inconvenience, and personal loss of money.”

The four questions about discipline…

While there are many approaches to discipline, any successful one should be a thoughtful way to pass on parental values and rules. It’s a parent’s job to be their children’s loving teacher, and take into consideration their own kid’s temperaments and stages of development. I have found that asking themselves these four questions can help parents use the most effective discipline:

  1. What do I want my child to learn from this experience or opportunity?
  2. Is what I’m doing helping my child to learn that?
  3. Are there any negative effects from my behavior?
  4. If so, what can I do differently?

As you can clearly see, these questions are about the child, not you. My encouragement to parents is NOT to make discipline about you. Effective discipline will enable your kids to have self-discipline, and therefore grow up to be responsible adults.

Discipline blunders, bungles and boo-boos (oh my!)

No doubt about it, parenting is a tough job, especially when it comes to discipline. Here are a few of the biggest mistakes parents make and what you can do about them:

  • Not giving the right kind of attention. I’ve found that when kids don’t get enough positive attention for good behaviors (like for setting the table or taking out the trash), problems often result. Children will often act out just to get any kind of attention.
  • Only focusing on the short-term. Good discipline techniques focus on the long-term and deliver the skills children need to grow up. Sure, giving in to whining may make things easier today, but it will make behavior problems worse in the long-term. All it takes is for parents to stick to realistic limits and provide fair, consistent, discipline.
  • Not creating clearly defined and explained rules. It helps to write them out and discuss them with your children. Otherwise, it can be quite confusing for kids to know exactly what is expected from them…consistently, day-in-and-day-out.
  • Not having a discipline plan. When it comes to managing behavioral issues, it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive and to have a plan to manage behavioral issues. When parents attack problems with a clear plan, it is much easier to track the child’s progress and make changes when necessary. Without a plan, there can be ongoing struggles and chaos.

Need help setting rules and coming up with a discipline plan that works for you and your children? Or have a child that just isn’t responding to discipline? Behavior Management Coaching can help. Talk to us today.