The difference between punishment and discipline

The word discipline is defined as the practice of teaching others to obey rules or norms. The word has gotten a bad rap because it is associated with punitive practices like spanking or punishing children. But as adults, we have our own discipline: physically, we try not to be overtired or dehydrated. Socially, we try to behave appropriately. Emotionally, we hold our temper and try not to hurt those we love. These are unsaid, but they’re disciplines. And in teaching children, we are trying to do the same: communicating how to behave kindly, safely, and considerately.

A more accurate term is limit-setting, or setting behavioral boundaries. Because like newbies, they are constantly experimenting with how things work in the world. They are pushing the envelope - and the buttons and frankly everything, they are pushing everything - to figure out how far they are supposed to go. They don’t do this just to make your life difficult, but so you’ll communicate to them that they are safe within certain limits. That if they go past it, they can hurt themselves or others.

It’s easy to get to a point of thinking that all of our precious, perfect child’s impulses and actions are pure and harmless. And that’s true to a certain extent, but they also need to be told what they can and cannot do. It is in how we tell them that will determine the effect of our message. Sometimes we get so emotional that we either come on too strong that the message is lost in their fear of your big emotions. Or sometimes we come on so soft and unsure that they don’t hear the message. And sometimes (and this is the worst!) we are inconsistent depending on our mood or environment. But you have to be confident and consistent. When you chose to raise your child, that was like, one of the bravest decisions you ever made! You like, instantly became a superhero! A parent is a superhero. That’s just true. And we have to keep on practicing our powers for the good, for the love and for the welfare of that child.

So don’t be afraid to discipline your child. When they manifest negative or destructive behavior, be mindful of:

  • What you say

  • How you say it

  • How you feel yourself

Misbehavior hits manyyyyyy buttons, especially if it's in the grocery store when you’re TRYING to find the perfect avocado but you’re distracted so you get a bad avocado and breakfast tacos are ruined. But this is the time to pull yourself together and not get super self-conscious of what people are thinking of you and your child. Get real centered and remember easy does it:

  • Be intentional in your language, keep it short and simple.

  • Don’t speak in a hysterical, over-reactive tone - no one is receptive to that

  • Speak calmly, firmly, with an even tone

  • Get down to their level and look them in the eye

  • Control your face so that you are not too emotional and hence scary

  • Remember that they are trying to learn from you, not to get you upset

  • Remember that they are asking for instructions on how to behave in that moment and in that space

Another effective method is to give clear instructions on what they can do and cannot do. Remember to emphasize the can, because if you just say what they cannot do, well, that’s the only thing they will remember. For example, since children are selective listeners, saying “Stop running around!” will only get them to hear “running around.” But if you say, “You must stay near me so you can stay safe,” it’s a direct, clear instruction and an explanation!

Further reading:

How To Set Limits For Children

Effective Limit Setting: Ideas For Parents

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