Discipline is Not Punishment

The word "discipline" conjures up images of a parent spanking or shouting at a child for misbehaving. For many adults, discipline means verbal or physical punishment. Actually, to discipline means to teach. Discipline should be a positive way of helping and guiding children to achieve self-control. Adults' beliefs about what is good discipline have a great effect on how children live their lives and get along with others.

Why children need discipline
The task of teaching, or disciplining, children may seem overwhelming, but understanding the reasons for it may help.

Often parents discipline children to protect them from danger. Thus a parent may teach eighteen-month-old Amy not to touch the hot stove by removing her from the danger while saying "No, Amy, the hot stove will burn you and it will hurt!"

Children need discipline so they can learn to get along with others and to understand that there are limits on unacceptable behavior. So three-year-old Jimmy is taught that he must not grab his friends' toys. Six-year-old Eddie learns not to talk continuously during class because the teacher and students have established rules for when students must be quiet.

Discipline helps children learn to think in an orderly fashion and to understand the logical consequences of their actions. It helps them order and deal with information that is important for success in and out of school. For instance, ten-year-old Greg learns to get home in time for dinner because it is a family rule that, if he or his siblings are late for dinner, they may not go out and play afterward.

Finally, discipline helps transmit parental and societal values. Through discipline, children learn that society has certain common rules that everyone is expected to live by - for example, respecting others' property. Children also learn the individual values that their family, school and community hold.

The purpose of discipline, then, should be to guide children toward acceptable behavior and to teach them to make wise decisions when dealing with life's problems.

Discipline is not punishment
Discipline is not the same as punishment. Instead of punishment, children must be taught what behavior is allowed or not allowed and why. Therefore, adults should stress "do's" rather than "don'ts" and praise children when they behave well or accomplish something. An example of this "positive" discipline would be telling your son, "Please pick your clothes up off the floor because I have to vacuum in here" rather than saying, "Don't throw your clothes on the floor anymore!"

Studies have shown that physical punishment, such as hitting and slapping, and verbal abuse, is not effective discipline. While such punishment may seem to get fast results in specific instances, in the long term it is generally more harmful than helpful. Physical punishment can demoralize and humiliate children and cause them to develop low self-esteem. Some experts argue that it also promotes physical aggression in children by showing them that violence is acceptable.

For very young children, adults can choose other discipline techniques, such as distraction and removal of the object in question or moving the child from an area of danger.

Specific Discipline Tips

  1. Set a good example. Children learn more by how adults act than by what they say. If you want, for example, to teach a child that physically aggressive behavior is not the way to resolve conflicts or problems, don't resort to physical action yourself.
  2. Set limits on behavior, but be careful not to impose too many rules. Before making a rule, ask yourself, "Is it necessary?" Does it protect the rights or property of others? Too many rules overwhelm and hinder creativity and spontaneity and are hard, if not impossible, to enforce. Generally, older children need fewer rules as they develop self-discipline.
  3. Try to ignore unwanted behavior unless it is causing harm to people or is otherwise destructive. But be honest with a child about behavior that is annoying to you or other adults.
  4. Act quickly when a child misbehaves. Don't let a problem or worry build up over a period of time.
  5. Help the child develop inner control. Young children do not have the self-control to follow all the rules all the time. A five-year-old girl may not be able to exert the self-control necessary not to take a cookie from the cookie jar before dinner. The parent might help by moving the cookie jar out of sight or offering the child something that is allowed.
  6. Be consistent. Consistency reinforces the importance of a rule, and a child can always predict the results if she doesn't follow the rule.
  7. Praise a child for good behavior and accomplishments. Let the child know you appreciate her efforts.
  8. Avoid power struggles with children. Discipline is not a game in which there is a winner and a loser. You expect cooperation from the child and the child expects you to be fair. Respect the child enough to allow disagreement at times.
  9. Keep your sense of humor. It can work wonders with children.
  10. Treat children as you would your friends - with love, respect and courtesy.

Source: The National PTA. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 60

Last updated December 14, 2015