CENTERS PIECE: Are you disciplining or punishing?Bryn Dodd is a licensed professional counselor and Parent Power director at the Center for Children and Families.

 As parents, we have the most important job in the world.  Through our discipline techniques, we influence our child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being.

When you think about the word “discipline,” what are the thoughts that come to mind? Many associate “discipline” with punishment and are shocked to learn that these approaches are drastically different. 

The difference between discipline and punishment goes a lot deeper than just the meaning of the words.  There is a difference in how a child’s brain reacts to these approaches which influences their emotional, cognitive, and physical responses.


What is discipline? Discipline is the process of teaching a child what type of behavior is acceptable and not acceptable.  In other words, discipline teaches a child to follow rules.

Discipline teaches children a particular misbehavior is bad because it violates the social order, thus promoting the development of internal controls. 

Discipline creates dialogue and communication with the adult acting as teacher. Discipline focuses on teaching the desirable future behavior. 


What is punishment?  Punishment is a fear-based technique used for the purposes of controlling and retribution. Punishment focuses on making a child suffer for breaking the rules.

Many parents hope that fear will condition their child to abandon the undesired behavior and adopt the desired one. Punishment interferes with the development of internal controls by teaching children that it is someone else’s responsibility to control them, decide what behavior is “bad,” and what the consequences will be.

Punishment causes children to focus their attention and anger toward an “unfair” adult rather than on learning to be responsible for their own actions. Parents will continue to use this technique because there is often an immediate behavioral change, but find out that it is ineffective in the long run. 

Punishment validates fear, pain, intimidation, and violence as acceptable methods of resolving conflict. Additionally, frequent fear is not good for a child’s brain. 


Just because you are not punishing does not mean you are not disciplining.

Punishment is often not necessary nor is it effective in disciplining children. Studies have shown that non-coercive discipline, encouragement, and problem solving are far more effective.

No one technique of discipline works for all children and situations. Parents should develop a variety of skills and approaches. Effective discipline uses many different tools such as:

  • Model good behavior; parents model the way they want their child to behave.
  • Ignore negative behavior when possible. Ignore behavior that will not harm your child, such as bad habits, whining, and tantrums. Never ignore potentially dangerous behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement — praise good behavior and encourage.
  • Redirecting attention.  
  • Identify the reason for the unwanted behavior and addressing the root cause.
  • Use natural consequences to replace punishment.
  • Develop age-appropriate rules and expectations for your child.
  • Hold family meetings to discuss the rules and expectations.
  • Be consistent in enforcing rules and expectations.

As a parent, you have the opportunity to fill your child’s life with positive learning experiences.  These experiences will help your child become independent, confident, and a critical thinker.