Discipline for Young Children - Discipline and Punishment: What is the Difference?



Authors as Published

Valya Telep, Former Extension Specialist, Child Development, Virginia State University

Effective discipline helps children learn to control their behavior so that they act according to their ideas of what is right and wrong, not because they fear punishment. For example, they are honest because they think it is wrong to be dishonest, not because they are afraid of getting caught.

The purpose of punishment is to stop a child from doing what you don't want - and using a painful or unpleasant method to stop him.

There are basically four kinds of punishment

The first two kinds of punishment, physical and verbal, are not considered to be effective discipline methods. The other two, withholding rewards and giving penalties, can be used either as effective discipline methods or as punishment - depending on how parents administer them.

Note: Since it is awkward to refer to the child as “he/she,” all references in these lessons to the child as “he” refer to both boys and girls.

Mild or Harsh?

It is important to look at the way parents administer physical punishments.

A swat on the bottom is a mild physical punishment. While it may do no permanent physical harm, it does not help the child develop a conscience. Instead, it teaches him that physical violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems. Parents should avoid physical punishment. If they find themselves using it, then something is wrong and their method of discipline is not working. They may as well admit that spanking is more effective in relieving the parents' frustration than in teaching the child self-control. More effective methods are needed.

Harsh physical punishment and verbal abuse can never be justified as ways to discipline children. Parents usually spank when they are angry; a parent may not realize how hard he is striking the child. Verbal abuse hurts the child's self concept.

Why Punishment Doesn't Work

Physical punishment usually doesn't work for several reasons. First, it makes the child hate himself and others. Physical punishment makes the child think that there must be something awfully wrong with him to be treated so badly. If children think they are "bad," then they will act "bad." A vicious cycle is formed. The child who has been treated harshly has no reason to be good. Or he may be good just to keep from being punished and not learn to be good because he thinks it is the right thing to do.

Children who have been spanked feel that they have paid for their misbehavior and are free to misbehave again. In other words, spanking frees the child from feelings of remorse which are needed to prevent future misbehavior.

Parents who use physical punishment are setting an example of using violence to settle problems or solve conflicts, Children imitate their parents' behavior. When parents use physical punishment, children are more likely to use violent acts to settle their conflicts with others.

Another disadvantage of using physical punishment is that parents have to find other discipline methods when the child becomes as tall and as strong as the parent! Why not start using effective discipline methods when the child is young?

Where reward and punishment focus on the child, encouragement and reality discipline target the act. Reward and punishment teaches the child to be "good" as long as we are looking. When rewards are our chief way of motivating children we run the risk of creating "carrot seekers": children who are always looking for and expecting a reward every time they do something good or right. If we give a child money for making his bed this week, he'll wonder where his money is next week. Instead of being self-motivated by a desire to cooperate or help other family members, we have taught the child to look to us for his source of motivation.

Effective Discipline . . .

Harsh Punishment . . .

Why do Parents Spank?

Parents who spank their children rather than using other discipline methods usually say:

Reasons for spanking which parents seldom give are:

Some parents spank because they place a high value on obedience. Their whole aim is for the child to "mind," to do what he is told without question. There are times when a child needs to obey instantly, such as when he starts to run out in the street without looking.

When obedience is the parent's main objective, however, the child becomes passive and loses his zest for life.

The question of spanking is an emotional issue which parents feel very strongly about. They can be divided into one of three groups. They think either:

  1. "Spare the rod and spoil the child."
  2. "I can't imagine anyone laying a hand on a poor defenseless child."
  3. "Other kinds of discipline are more effective."

Parents who spank ask, "What's wrong with it?" It isn't a question of right or wrong, but of what is best for the child. Perhaps parents who spank frequently should ask themselves:

Often, attitudes toward physical punishment reflect religious beliefs and ideas about what children are like. Child development educators believe that the child is born neither good nor bad; they have the possibility of becoming good or bad according to how they are treated, the kind of experiences they have, and their reaction to their environment. Since these educators believe that children are not naturally bad, they think children need to be disciplined in ways which help them learn to do what is "right" rather than be punished.

Harsh discipline focuses anger on the parent.

Effective discipline allows children to "hurt from the inside out" and focus on their actions.

Using Consequences as a Form of Discipline

Letting children experience the consequences of their decisions is a "hassle-free" way to discipline young people. Children learn from experiences, just like adults. We call it learning the "hard way." The child learns that every act has a consequence for which he is responsible. Parents can declare that the consequence of not coming to the dinner table in time to eat is that the child does not eat his dinner that evening. Hunger is a natural consequence of not eating. If the child complains, mother can say, "I'm sorry you feel hungry now. It's too bad, but you'll have to wait for breakfast." The child who experiences the unpleasant consequences of his behavior will be less likely to act that way again.

Parents should tell the child, before it happens, what the consequences are for breaking a rule. If the child knows that the consequence of not getting to the dinner table in time to eat with the family is not eating, then he has a choice. He can choose to get home in time to eat, or he can choose to be late and not eat. He must understand that he has a choice and that he must accept the consequences of that choice.

The child also needs to know the reason for the consequence; for example, it is extra work to keep food warm and inconsiderate of other family members.

It is important, too, that parents be willing to accept the child's decision; that is, they must be willing to allow the child to go without dinner if he chooses to miss the meal. A general rule of thumb is: always give a couple of choices, provided they are choices the parent can live with.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences allow children to learn from the natural order of the world. For example, if the child doesn't eat, he will get hungry. If he doesn't do his homework, he will get a low grade. The parent allows unpleasant but natural consequences to happen when a child does not act in a desirable way.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are arranged by parents. The consequence must logically follow the child's behavior. For example, not having clean clothes to wear is a logical consequence of not placing dirty clothes in the hamper.

Consequences Teach Responsibility

Kristin left her dirty clothes on the floor and never placed them in the dirty clothes bag as mother requested. Nagging, scolding, and threatening did no good. Kristin continued to leave her dirty clothes on the floor.

Mother decided to use logical consequences. She told Kristin, in a firm and friendly voice, that in the future she would wash only clothes that were placed in the bag. After five days, Kristin had no clean clothes to wear to school and she was very unhappy to have to wear dirty, rumpled clothes. After that, Kristin remembered to place her clothes in the bag.

Kristin's mother gave her the responsibility for placing her clothes in the proper place to be washed. If mother had relented and washed Kristin's clothes when she had not placed them in the bag, she would have deprived her of an opportunity to learn to take responsibility for herself. If parents protect children from the consequences of their behavior, they will not change their behavior.

Some parents would not be willing for their child to go to school in dirty, rumpled clothes. Only they can decide if they want to offer the child that particular consequence.

Using consequences can help a child develop a sense of accountability. It leads to warmer relationships between parents and children and to fewer conflicts. The situation itself provides the lesson to the child.

Natural Consequences Cannot Be Used in all Situations

Parents cannot use natural consequences if the health or safety of the child is involved. If a young child runs into the street without looking, it is not possible to wait until he is hit by a car - a natural consequence - to teach him not to run into the street. Instead, he should be taken into the house and told, "Since you ran into the street without looking, you cannot play outside now. You can come out when you decide to look before going into the street."

This is a logical consequence. Because running into the street can harm the child, he cannot play outside until he learns to play safely in the yard. He has a choice; he can stay out of the street or he can go inside. He is given responsibility for his behavior and any consequences he experiences (going inside) are the result of his own behavior. You can begin giving choices as soon as the child can experience the consequence of his behavior. For example, a very young child who plays with his food instead of eating can be lovingly removed from his highchair and told, "All done!" It won't take long before he sees he has a choice: he can be up in the highchair eating and getting positive attention from the parent; or he can be hungry on the floor.

Consequences Are Learning Experiences

The purpose of using consequences is to help the child learn to make decisions and to be responsible for his own behavior. Consequences are learning experiences, not punishment. For example, if father yells angrily at his child, "Put up your toys or you can't watch TV," he is not encouraging the child to make a responsible decision. However, if he says calmly and in a friendly voice, "Stuart, feel free to watch TV as soon as your toys are picked up," he allows Stuart to make a choice. The secret of using consequences effectively is to stay calm and detached. Allow the consequences to be the "bad guy" - not you!

Parents cannot apply consequences if they are angry. They cannot conceal their anger from the child - their voices will give them away. Try to view the situation objectively - as though the child were a neighbor's child and not your own - and administer the consequences in a firm and kindly manner. Remember that giving a child a choice and allowing him to experience the consequences is one of the best ways that children learn.

Consequences work when the child is trying to get the parent's attention by misbehaving and when children fight, dawdle, and fail to do their chores. Consequences can be used to get children to school on time, to meals on time, and to take responsibility for homework. The child learns that if he doesn't pick up his toys, he can't go out and play; if he doesn't wash his hands before meals, he won't be served any food; and if he fights with his brother while in the car, the car will be stopped until calm resumes.

Using Consequences Takes Practice

It is not easy to use consequences as a way to discipline children. It is hard work to think of consequences that really are logical. And it requires lots of patience! Sometimes it takes several weeks to get results.

Parents are so used to telling children what to do that it is very difficult to sit back and let the child experience the consequences of his actions. The effort is well worth it, however, because you are sending a powerful message to the child that says, "you are capable of thinking for yourself."

The differences between consequences and punishment are:

Consequences Punishment
calm tone of voice angry tone of voice
friendly but firm attitude hostile attitude
willing to accept the child's decision unwilling to give a choice

Discipline vs. Punishment

To discipline effectively, think about these ideas:

1. Effective discipline methods work better than punishment in teaching children how to behave.

2. The more parents use effective discipline methods, the less children need punishment.

3. There is no excuse for using physical or verbal punishment to discipline a child.

4. Using consequences as a discipline method helps children learn to take responsibility for their behavior.

5. Consequences must be logically related to the misbehavior.

6. The child must see the relationship between his misbehavior and the consequences or it will not work.

7. The child must know he has a choice when consequences are used.

8. Use consequences in a firm, kind, friendly manner.


We insist on respect and obedience, just as command parents do. But instead of fighting words, we use thinking words.

(My children HATE when I stop to think about how to handle something, especially the 14 yr old...she will BEG to just be grounded and have done with it! LOL)


Discipline Without Punishment, Part Two
Published on August 5, 2004 By
Poetmom99 In Home & FamilyLove and logic parenting is a philosophy based on law and order. We allow our kids to mess up, and we don't drive home the lesson of their misdeeds with our words. We are slow to lecture; we never actually tell our kids what they have just learned. We believe telling them what to think is counterproductive. We can give them guidance but they must think for themselves.

However, none of this means that we don't set limits for our children. Limits are crucial to love and logic parenting. Our kids need the security in which they can begin making those important decisions. They have to know the boundaries.

Kids seem most secure around parents who are strong, who don't allow the limits they place on their kids to crumble. Children lose respect for adults who cannot set limits and make them stick. Kids who misbehave without having to face the consequences become brats. Children lucky enough to have limits placed on them in loving ways become secure enough not only to deal with their own emotions, but to form satisfying relationships with others. Limits allow children to develop self-confidence. As a result, they are easier to teach, they spend less time misbehaving, and they grow up to be responsible adults.

For many parents, setting limits means issuing commands, and backing up those limits with more commands spiced with sternness and anger. Love and logic parents are always asking questions and offering choices. We don't tell our kids what to do, but we put the burden of decision making on their shoulders. As they grow older, we don't tell them what the limits are, but we establish limits by offering choices. We insist on respect and obedience, just as command parents do. But instead of fighting words, we use thinking words.

For example, if a child says something loud and unkind to the parents:

FIGHTING WORDS: Don't you talk to me in that tone of voice!
THINKING WORDS: You sound upset. I'll be glad to listen when your voice is as soft as mine is.

If two children are fighting:

FIGHTING WORDS: Be nice to each other. Quit fighting!
THINKING WORDS: You guys are welcome to come back as soon as you work that out.

Kids fight against commands. They see an implied threat in them. When we tell them to do something, they see our words as an attempt to take control of the situation. Anytime we usurp more control, it means that they have less control. They exert themselves to regain the control they see slipping away.

Fighting words include three types of commands:
1) when we tell our kids what to do--"You get to work on that lawn right now."
2) when we tell our kids what we will not allow--"You're not going to talk to me that way!"
3) when we tell our kids what we WON'T do for them--"I'm not letting you out of this house until you clean the living room."

Thinking words tell our children
1) what we will allow--"Feel free to join us for your next meal as soon as the lawn is mowed."
2) what we will do--"I'll be glad to read you a story as soon as you've finished your bath."
3) what we will provide--"You may eat what is served, or you may wait and see if the next meal appeals to you more."

When we give children the righ to make decisions, there is no anger for them to rebel against. Nobody is doing their thinking for them, and the limit is established.

Just as quickly as children learn where the limits are, they'll test them. In fact, they NEED to test them in order to assure themselves that the limits are firm enough to provide the needed security. They need to find out if we mean what we say, if we're going to stand firm on our word or not.

The battles that parents can't win are those centered around children's brain activity. If kids can hook us into trying to make them talk, think, learn, or go to sleep at a certain time, they've got us. We'll never win those battles, and we'll waste our energy fighting them.

Children who grow up with parents who dole out control in increasing amounts are usually satisfied with the level of control. It's always more than it used to be.

One reason choices work is that they create situations in which children are forced to think. Kids are given options to ponder, courses of action to choose. They must decide. Second, choices proviide opportunities for children to make mistakes and learn from the consequences. Third, choices help us avoid getting into control battles with our children. And finally, choices provide our children with opportunities to hear that we trust their thinking abilities, which builds their self-esteem, and builds the relationship between parent and child. It is best, however, to offer choices only when you are willing to ensure that your children will be forced to live with the consequences.

There are two basic points to offering choices:
1) Never give more than two verbal choices, but make sure the child knows there is an implied third choice, if he doesn't decide, then we'll decide for him.
2) Make sure whichever choice the child chooses, it will be something we can live with.
Nonthreatening choices, offered in a calm manner, give children a chance to take some control over their problems.

Always be sure to select choices you as a parent like. Never provide one you like and one you don't, because the child will usually select the one you don't like. Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to experience the consequences of that choice. Never give choices when the child is in danger. Never give choices unless you are willing to make the choice in the event the child doesn't. Delivery of the choices is important. Try to start your sentence with one of the following: "You're welcome to (choice A) or (choice ." "Feel free to (choice A) or (choice ." "Would you rather (choice A) or (choice ? "What would be best for you--(choice A) or (choice ?"

Notice how there has been no mention of punishment to this point? Punishment doesn't happen in the real world unless a crime is committed. When people are punished for something, they seldom pause for self-examination. Resentment is the more common reaction. The real world operates on consequences, not punishments. Punishing our children allows them to escape from the real consequences of their actions.

Love and logic parents want our children to hurt from the inside out. This happens when we allow the consequences to do the teaching. Consequences leave kids thinking very hard about their behavior and their responsibilities. Consequences lead to self-examination and thought.

Natural consequences allow the cause and effect of our children's actions to register in their brains. When they ask themselves "Who is making me hurt like this?" their only answer is "Me." But these consequences put a painful, sinking feeling into our stomachs as parents. They are exactly the things we don't want to happen to our children.

While natural consequences are best, occasionally our children's actions don't lend themselves to such consequences. In those cases, we must impose consequences ourselves. The imposed consequences must be enforceable, fit the "crime," and be laid down firmly in love. Sometimes these consequences look a lot like punishment. But when they are imposed without anger and threats, and when presented to our children in a way that the connection between the misbehavior and the consequence is made plain, they are quite effective.

If no consequence comes to mind, it is much better to take our time and think of an appropriate consequence than to blurt something out in haste or anger. TIme for thinking can be bought with words like "I'm not sure what to do about this right now. But I'll let you know." or "I'm not sure how to react to that. I'll have to give it some thought." (My children HATE when I stop to think about how to handle something, especially the 14 yr old...she will BEG to just be grounded and have done with it! LOL)

The thing that drives the lesson down into our children's hearts after they make a mistake is our empathy and sadness. When our kids blow it and suffer the consequences, it is crucial that we express our sadness to them. For the consequences to have any benefit, we must commiserate with our kids, not yell at them. They have nobody to be angry with but themselves when we show sadness.

Now, if anyone is interested in specifics, feel free to toss me out some situations, and I'll do my best to let you know how I have or would handle it using this method of parenting. Thanks to anyone who read both articles!!