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There is an important distinction that must be made between punishment and discipline. Sometimes these two get used interchangeably but there is a big difference.

Punishment is a negative experience imposed on someone in a subordinate position in response to an action or behavior that was unacceptable. For example a parent might punish a child for misbehaving. It is hoped that the negative experience will serve as a deterrent so the child does not repeat the misbehavior. Punishment can come in the form of being grounded (that can include a number of restrictions) or being sent to one’s room or a time out location. An old fashioned punishment was to write 100 times, “I will not…” And of course there are parents that believe in physical punishment or spanking. None of these punishments are very effective in deterring the undesirable behavior but it certainly makes the recipient unhappy and sometimes demoralized.

Discipline on the other hand is more about mutually setting rules, understanding the reasons for the rules and agreeing to the consequences. It is important for the person in the leadership role to follow through with the consequences. This type of understanding makes it possible to prevent unwanted behavior which is far better than responding to the unwanted behavior after the fact.

The word “discipline” comes from the same root as the word “disciple” which means to teach. So discipline is more about teaching than punishing. Discipline is something we carry with us as adults. We need to discipline ourselves to engage in healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, exercise, waking up on time to go to school or work, and being productive in whatever we do. This is what we try to teach our children

As parents, the most effective way to discipline is to set up a daily structure with built in rewards for doing the right things. It is important to make it easier to succeed than to fail. This builds confidence and self-esteem. Expectations should be reasonable and attainable.

Two important aspects of discipline include:

1) Allowing for setbacks without getting derailed.

2) Getting rewards at regular intervals rather than at the end of a long stretch.

This helps a person stay motivated. This process is as effective for adults as it is in disciplining children. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Children in particular act impulsively because the executive function in the brain is not fully developed. If you ask a child why they did something, they are very likely to say, “I don’t know.” That is a valid answer.

Nobody is perfect. It is important to correct and redirect a child, reminding the child about the expectations and consequences. Using a compassionate voice, let the child know that the consequences will be enforced. There is no need to engage in a debate about it.

For discipline to work it has to be consistent. Once the rules become random or intermittently enforced, the whole system breaks down. It becomes a frustration. The parents lose their authority and the respect of the children. The children become anxious and insecure. The emotional confusion causes kids to misbehave more. They try to test the limits so that they can understand where the boundaries are. Children like certainty. It makes them feel safer knowing a parent or responsible adult is in charge and is strong enough to do what needs to be done.

Some parents feel bad about enforcing rules. They don’t want their children to get upset and cry. It is far better to be kind and consistent than to buckle and give in.

As adults we know that we have to follow rules or risk the consequences. If we speed, we run the risk of getting a ticket. Nobody likes to get tickets. If we have a job, the workplace has rules. If we break the rules there is a good chance we will lose our job. Nobody likes being fired and not having an income.

With proper discipline, we teach our children what the expectations are and what the consequences are. If we provide a lifetime of consistently helping our children understand right from wrong and showing them that doing the right thing has its rewards, then children will get better and better at self-discipline. The more self-discipline a person has, the less they have to face negative consequences and the easier and happier life will be.

Footnotes:

Guidelines for consequences:

The consequences for not following the agreed upon rules should be of equal severity to the offence. For example, if a child comes home ten minutes past curfew, it is unreasonable to ground the child for a month. The longer and more unreasonable the consequences are, the more likely they will not be adhered to and that will undermine the adult’s authority.

The consequences should be enforceable. Eliminating the use of all electronics or screens for a week would be difficult to enforce if the child needs a computer for school or is out of the parent’s site for large periods of time.

If possible, the consequences should relate to the offence or serve as a teachable moment. If the child did damage to the home, they should use their free time to try and fix the damage or do extra chores to earn back the cost of fixing what was damaged.