There is a never-ending struggle for parents on whether to use discipline or punishment. And really, what’s the difference? When and how do we give consequences for bad behavior from our children? Many of us were spanked as kids. Some of us were screamed at. We were grounded or put in time out. But what does all this mean and how does it affect our kiddos and us as they grow up?
Connect the Consequence
I often hear in my own practice that parents took a child’s or teen’s phone away as punishment for talking back, not doing chores or for getting bad grades. I know this makes sense in the moment but does it actually connect with the poor behavior choice? It seems harmless but does it make any more sense then spanking? What impressions are we hoping to leave our kids with and what repercussions will this kind of display of parental power have in the long term?
Let’s look at some definitions:
Merriam –Webster dictionary online defines discipline as, “control gained by enforcing obedience or order”. A second definition is ”training that corrects, molds or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.
It defines punishment as, “suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution” or “severe, rough or disastrous treatment.”
Seeing the stark difference between these two word’s definitions reminds us of how important it is to be thoughtful of the difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is about retribution. Discipline is about learning.
How can we effectively and thoughtfully teach our children to follow rules, get their obligations done and CARE about how their behavior affects others?
Core Values Matter
When a child knows what you believe are important values in your family, they will understand better what would make you disappointed in them and they will strive to work to improve in those areas. Children naturally want to please and receive praise, even teenagers. And if they know what your expectations are for them, it is much easier for them to fulfill them. This is why classroom teachers have the rules and discipline posted in their classrooms.
See my article on Core Family Values here.
From the experts
We can use discipline to teach them how we expect them to behave and what that expected behavior actually looks like. Teaching them creates higher self-esteem for them and less guilt for us, as it would have been if we had punished them.
Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S, CPCS (www.wonderscounseling.com) explains how she works with parents, “I like to introduce parents to the word ‘discipline’ roots to the word disciple or student and that discipline is really a process of teaching but that children learn most efficiently when the learning is fun and positive. “
But how do you teach or show them what your expectations are? By making it fun for the younger children and coaching the older children and teens in a new skill.
Lynn Louise Wonders knows how to make it fun! “An example is when a mom needs her 4 year old to come put shoes on to get out the door, instead of scolding when she doesn’t come, if mom turns her shoes into puppets that are talking to her in a funny voice the child is more likely to comply.”
What is the lesson?
Talking back is one of the more frustrating behaviors that parents of older chidden and teens complain about. I ask myself, “What need are they trying to get met? Are they frustrated at not being able to communicate their needs to me? Are they not feeling heard? Are they tired, hungry, or sick? Once I determine what is really happening, I can more calmly focus on the talking back behavior without talking disrespectfully back to my child out of frustration.
Cary Hamilton, M.A., MFT, LMHC-S, CMHS, RPT-S (www.olympiatherapy.com) helps us understand how she views discipline. “I always ask parents to think of discipline or consequences as; what is the lesson you want them to learn? This is the guiding statement to help focus parents on the intention of their actions. Is it out of anger and they are mad and want the child to experience their anger? Or is it an opportunity to help them learn a different way? For example, back talking from an 8-year-old. It can drive you bonkers and yet what is the intention? Likely to get attention, so threatening them or taking something away only frustrated them more -so they up the ante. Instead, give them 30 seconds of attention to hear them out and ask them how you can help them get back on track. It will likely result in you finding more out about the current distress your child is under and how to support them, while limiting the negative behavior. Parents always tell me it takes more time. I ask them to really think about how long 30 seconds are and if they maybe end up yelling or arguing for much longer! What do you want a child to learn; this phrase focuses on the relationship and strengthening connections. A win/win for the parent and child relationship. “
There is nothing more frustrating then having to stop what you are doing to consciously discipline a child but letting the moment pass without teaching them is losing those valuable “teaching moments”. Those are not so easy to get back and save tons of frustration in the future. It really is a gift you give yourself and your child.
Why not punishment?
Now, let’s look back at punishment. What does it gain us in building a relationship with our child in threatening them or making them feel badly about themselves? In the moment, it does solve the immediate problem (occasionally) of their poor behavior choices. But, it doesn’t teach them values or why we believe they should behave a certain way. We miss the point and the moment. As well, our child or teen really doesn’t know why we are punishing them for a behavior other then we have all of the power and control and they have none. Then the power struggle ensues.
Rose LaPiere, LPC, RPT-S, ACS (www.roselapiere.com) shares that, “Childhood is an experiment and kids are figuring out the how’s and why’s of what they are doing. The point is they are supposed to make mistakes and get it wrong so they can figure out how to get it right. When we come from a teaching perspective in discipline, it allows growth to happen, punishment does not. Punishing a child for a month with no dessert because of talking back doesn’t really connect back. I ask parents to think about how is their discipline teaching the child to learn and work through their mistake. So with that same example, if a child talks back the discipline could be to think about another way to say that respectfully or let’s take space and then we are going to talk about what you will do next time you’re mad. The idea is that next time the child is faced with the same or similar situation, they will know how to do it differently. “
Dangers of punishment
Punishment, especially spanking, negatively affects our brains. When a child is being yelled at or threatened, their brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. It truly thinks they are in danger. And don’t forget, you, as their parents are their main source of comfort, care giving and support. If their brain is under stress from a parent’s behavior, it can affect healthy attachment and future relationships.
Here is a serious look at spanking and the effects on a child’s brain. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-me-in-we/201202/how-spanking-harms-the-brain
Building self-esteem through failure.
When a child or teen learns a new or better way to handle a situation and we give them the space to try again. We are really saying to them. “ You are capable and you can be successful” -thus building their self-esteem. “Failing forward” is common lingo in business these days and means to fail and learn from your mistakes while becoming more resilient. This is true for our kids as well. As we fail, we learn from our mistakes. As we start to succeed at things we worked hard to learn, we build self-confidence in that area.
Finally, when we discipline or teach our children how we prefer them to behave and what our values are, we raise them with love. And understanding.