The Conversation – Punishment vs. Discipline
As the father of 16 children, I am often approached by other parents for advice on their own children. At least half the time, the topic turns to punishment, and the conversation is like this:
Them: “So, how should I punish him? How do you discipline your kids?”
Me: “Pick one topic at a time, please! Do you want to talk about punishment, or discipline?”
Them: “They are the same thing!”
Me: “No, they are not.”
Punishment is a negative aspect of life for everyone. It is not exclusive to children. There are thousands of grown adults in prisons around the world, being punished for their actions.
Discipline, on the other hand, is a more neutral aspect of life for everyone. A disciplined person will think before they act, and they will know if they are doing wrong, even as they do it. Even a disciplined person can do wrong, and be punished for their actions.
I learned many years ago, that there are three “rules” of punishment:
Punishment must be immediate.
Punishment must be relevant.
Punishment must hurt.
Please do not think that I am advocating child abuse! In fact, I am advocating love, not anger. I will explain each rule, with the following scenario:
Your 5 year old son runs through the dining room and bumps into the buffet cabinet. The antique glass punchbowl from your grandmother falls from its shelf and shatters. You loved your grandmother very much. Your son is standing to one side of the room, looking at the floor.
Every parent I tell that story to gets it wrong when I ask: “What do you do?” Remember the first rule: Punishment must be immediate. The first thing to do is take care of your child! Go to him, pick him up, and make certain he is not injured! Now that the shock is over, keep in mind that you must still address the situation. Telling a 5 year old “Wait until your father gets home” is useless, if not cruel. They will have long forgotten the event by the time father gets home. Any punishment at that point, is not fair.
Talk to your child. Make certain that he knows what he did, and how upset you are. Accept the fact that it was an accident, but his actions caused the accident.
Time to move on to the second rule: Punishment must be relevant. Even a 5 year old can understand that if you make a mess, you clean it up. An older child can clean up the mess themselves. With a 5 year old, have him help you clean it up, so he is not injured. Remind him as you pick up the pieces, how the incident makes you feel. Make your reaction relative to the incident.
Now that the initial actions are complete, immediately and relevantly, move on to the third rule: punishment must hurt. Again, I am not suggesting a physical punishment in the form of spanking, or anything similar. And again, most parents do not even consider my alternative before I offer it. Punishment must hurt. But there are many ways to bring tears to a child’s eye, without striking them. Pain can be emotional, too. I could bring my little ones to tears by using “the D word”: “I am so disappointed…”
In this case, however, damage was done, and must be addressed in kind. Take him to his room. Even a 5 year old has precious things. Take an item that is precious to him. It does not have to be the most expensive or the most precious. Ask him how he would feel if you destroyed it. Do not just take it from him. There must be emotional hurt associated with the incident. Talking with him about its loss, should be enough at this point in his life.
After this, hold your son! Talk softly to him, and let him know how sorry you are, that you had to make him feel this way. Let him know how you feel, about him taking your item from you. Exchange apologies, and affections.
Punishment is over! Move on, and move forward. Take your son out of his room, and spend time with him until he is calm and relaxed again. OK, until he is primed and ready for the next crisis! It will happen… it is called parenting.
Discipline is that small voice in your head that reminds you what could happen if you do something. Discipline is the cause and effect center of your brain. Discipline makes you remember that when you touch a hot stove, your hand will hurt, so you think before you risk injury.
In the case of my hypothetical story, you will not have to remind your son of what happened for the rest of his life. He will remember, because the pain involved will be linked to the event within his mind. He will remember, that running in the house can cause accidents, and that there are consequences. He may still run in the house, but he will be much more careful!
Punishment can lead to discipline.
Discipline rarely leads to punishment, unless you choose to ignore the reasoning that you already possess. If you take a risk, you risk the consequences.
There are no definitive manuals for raising a child. But in my experience, if you raise a child with love, understanding, and trust, you receive an adult that knows how to love, understand, and trust in return.