Discipline vs. Punishment: What Parenting Experts Want You To Know

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.
Young child and mother in nature

Image by KRISTEN CURETTE & DAEMAINE HINES / Stocksy

Teaching kids right from wrong, positive from negative, and that actions have consequences isn't always easy. This is especially true in the moment, when you know your kid is behaving less than ideal. What can a parent do to ensure that their child will not only understand that their actions aren't appropriate while also providing context for why and ideally helping them understand that they should not continue this behavior going forward.

"Discipline and punishment often get lumped together," says Aliza W. Pressman, Ph.D., co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, noting that, in fact, these two should be thought of as totally separate parenting actions. But what's the difference, and is one better? Parenting experts help us explain. 

What is punishment? 

"Punishment is focused on compliance, not teaching," says Pressman. "Punishment is an approach that is often used to discipline through making a child regret a misbehavior and possibly using fear of getting in trouble/punishment to stop future unwanted behavior." 

Punishment is, by its nature, reactionary. It's what you do as a response to something. Because of this, it's not usually enforced with context or structure to help the child learn and grow. And this usually isn't intentional—it just happens because, well, reacting in the moment isn't always easy or rational. 

"The issue is when parents apply punishment what they're usually trying to do is discipline. They're trying to teach kids self-control, consequences, and responsibility. But if the child doesn't have the skills to produce the desired behavior, understand what they were supposed to do, or have the appropriate context for why they should be changing their behavior, they may not totally get what's going on," says child care expert Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.

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Examples of punishment:

  • When a child acts rowdy with a sibling, you take away an iPad.
  • If a kid doesn't clean up their room, they can't have dessert.
  • Kids who get bad grades or miss an assignment get grounded from extracurricular activities. 

What is discipline?

This, on the other hand, is typically proactive—and can look like a lot of different behaviors and actions. "Discipline, which comes from the Latin root meaning 'to teach,' is the range of ways a parent can interact with their children so that they can understand what is expected of them, have tools for problem-solving, and make good decisions about behavior," says Pressman. 

And as Maguire notes, this is all about setting up a structure and context for your kid to succeed. Essentially, discipline starts before the "bad behavior" is even expressed: You want to explain to your kids what you expect of them, why you expect them to act this way, what the "real-life" consequences are if they don't, and what sort of outcomes may be expected if the independent behavior is not met. 

"Discipline is a tool that enacts a set of guidelines that you're using to learn lessons. Essentially it's given your kids the tools they need to learn life lessons, self-monitor, self-regulate, and understand boundaries," she says. 

Examples of discipline:

  • Setting up a cleaning schedule for the common areas, explaining that if the kids don't follow it, they can't have friends over as the house isn't tidy. 
  • Explaining that technology is a privilege, and if you don't treat iPads and phones carefully, then you can't be trusted with screen time. 
  • Enforcing the importance of schoolwork by explaining that adults can't enjoy "free time" until they get their projects done either. 
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What is more effective?

"Punishment is typically ineffective as a teaching tool because when a child is afraid or stressed, their brain is in a closed state and there is no opportunity for learning a lesson. Additionally, if a child is not taught the why and how about behavior, they may not get to understand how to make good decisions or why they should. In fact, most of the time punishment has nothing to do with the unwanted behavior," says Pressman. "Therefore, using punishment often backfires on parents."

However, there's a reason many caregivers typically fall back on punishment rather than discipline. Discipline takes more time, effort, and work. "Discipline takes up a large portion of interactions between caregivers and kids, so using those as teaching moments is essential to supporting healthy development," says Pressman. Not to mention, parents are human and often can slip into a more "punishment" style in the heat of the moment. These things happen, however, so don't stress too much and just try and put context around the situation the next time. 

 The takeaway. 

In order for kids to learn, understand, and adjust their behavior, they must be given the structure and help to do so. Setting up clear guidelines for expected behavior, explanations for why, and real-life consequences help kids learn boundaries and how to grow into a responsible, reasonable adult.  

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