Punishment and discipline: Why they have nothing in common

Discipline is a sensitive and complicated topic, and the fact that the age and temperament of children influences how they respond to various forms of discipline doesn't make it any easier on parents.

Opinions vary greatly on which type of discipline is most effective, and I’m not here to convince you that one is better than the other.


What I do want to talk about is something that has had much more of an impact on my parenting than merely weighing the pros and cons of spankings vs. timeouts vs. removing privileges and then dissecting the ways either can be pulled off “successfully.”

I want to dig into the heart of discipline. And to do that, we have to begin by acknowledging the profound difference between discipline and punishment. Because although the words are often used interchangeably, they couldn’t be more different.

Simply put, punishment is directed at the personhood of the child, and discipline is directed at the behavior that the child has displayed.

Punishment says, “Shame on you for disobeying me. I will now make you feel bad because you are bad.” Statements such as “You are a bad boy” or “You are a bad girl” shame our children, because they are directed at their personhood, rather than at the behavior they have displayed. Shame perpetuates the lie that because I do unlovable things, I am therefore an unlovable person.

Discipline, on the other hand, says, “You disobeyed me and, because I love you, I will give you consequences to help you learn from your mistakes and make better choices.”

Discipline is corrective and instructional, and it is for the child’s good. It never involves shame or fear to accomplish its purpose. It ensures children that they remain lovable, even when they make unlovable choices.

Clearly, discipline is the better option, not to mention the much more effective one. But too often discipline drifts into the punishment arena and leaves children unchanged and wallowing in guilt.

To discipline children effectively, parents must be aware of two very important ingredients – their motivation and its implementation.


To assess motivation, it’s important to ask, “What is my goal in discipline?”

When our goal in discipline is to force our children to obey or to make them more of who we think they should be we will resort to using fear and shame to get the outcome we want.

But the reality is, making our kids feel bad won’t make them want to be good.  It will only lead them to despair that they will never be good enough. When shame is woven into our parenting, we create hopelessness in our kids. This is punishment.

But if our goal in discipline is to help our children understand the belief behind their behavior, we are much more likely see real heart and behavioral change. Our beliefs about ourselves and those around us dictate our attitudes and overflow into our actions. When children are taught that they remain lovable even when they do unlovable things, we create hope in our kids. This is discipline.


We will never reach our children’s hearts, where real change takes place, when we discipline in anger or as a means of venting our frustration. This approach will only incite, humiliate or shame our children.

We will also never reach our children’s hearts when we lecture and nag. This approach only invites pretending in our kids, and produces exhaustion in us.

We’re much more likely to get the results we’re seeking with clear boundaries and consistently enforced consequences. Research actually reveals that “the type of parents who are most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids.” Consistency is associated with warmth and openness in a parent-child relationship.

And isn’t that what we really want as parents?