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How to Compare Child Discipline to Punishment

By Nannette Richford ; Updated April 18, 2017
Disciplining children should be a teachable moment.

Many well-meaning parents make the mistake of assuming that discipline and punishment are the same thing, but this simply isn’t so. Discipline is derived from the word "disciplinare" meaning to teach or instruct, while punishment comes from the Old French "punir" meaning to exact revenge or inflict damage. The goal in effective parenting is to use a combination of nurturing and teaching to prepare children to attain self-control and competence, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. How you do that may involve using either discipline or punishment, depending on the circumstances and your child's needs.

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Ask yourself what your motivation is when doling out consequences. If your primary goal is to teach your child not to engage in similar behavior in the future because you are concerned about his health and welfare, then you are probably disciplining your child. However, if you motivation is to make your child pay a price for his indiscretion, the consequences may be considered punishment.

Evaluate the consequences to determine whether they can be reasonably expected to teach your child or if they simply make her miserable. For example, if you are concerned that your teen will fall behind in her studies due to too many social engagements on weeknights, limiting her extra-curricular activities may be an effective form of discipline. However, taking social time away from her because she forgot to take out the garbage or mow the lawn may fall in the category of punishment.

Assess your feelings when handing out consequences. Effectively disciplining or punishing your child involves a desire to help your child improve her behavior, learn new skills or adhere to rules in order to keep her safe, healthy and ready to enter the world. Any punishment, however, that is metered out while overwhelmed with rage or anger towards your child is often ineffective, unfair or inappropriate for the child. When possible, plan consequences before situations occur to avoid snap decisions you may regret.

Consider whether the consequences are logical and fit the crime. Taking a bicycle away from a child who exhibits unsafe behavior on a bike may be an effective means of discipline that encourages him to comply with safety precautions. Taking the bike away from your child for not cleaning his room is a form of punishment designed to change his behavior.

Observe your child’s reaction to the consequences. For example, if limiting social activities during the week improves your child’s academic progress in school, or improves the quality of her sleep then you may have found an effective form of discipline. If, however, taking away social activities forces your child to go to bed earlier and gains some compliance from your child, you have likely used punishment to control behavior.

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About the Author

Nannette Richford is an avid gardener, teacher and nature enthusiast with more than four years' experience in online writing. Richford holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education from the University of Maine Orono and certifications in teaching 7-12 English, K-8 General Elementary and Birth to age 5.

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