The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline

There's a big difference between disciplining your children and punishing them.

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When it comes to correcting your child's misbehavior, there’s a big difference between punishment and discipline. While punishment focuses on making a child suffer for breaking the rules, discipline is about teaching him how to make a better choice next time.

What Is Punishment?

Punishment instills a penalty for a child’s offense. It's about making a child "pay" for his mistakes. Sometimes, the desire to inflict punishment stems from a parent’s feelings of frustration. At other times, it stems from desperation. A parent may feel compelled to yell, spank, or remove every privilege a child has ever had in an effort to send a clear message that his behavior better change "or else."

Punishment is about controlling a child, rather than teaching the child how to control himself. And most often, punishment changes the way a child thinks about himself.

A child who endures serious punishment may begin to think, "I'm bad." Instead of thinking he made a bad choice, he may believe he's a bad person. Authoritarian parents are most likely to punish kids. Punishment, like spanking, is meant to inflict physical pain and suffering. Other examples of punishment may include forcing a teenager to hold a sign that says, "I steal from stores," or calling a child names.

Problems With Punishments

Punishments don't teach children how to behave. A child who receives a spanking for hitting his brother doesn't learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. Instead, he'll be left feeling confused about why it's OK for you to hit him but it's not OK for him to hit his brother. Punishment also teaches kids that they are not able to be in control of themselves. They learn their parents must manage their behavior because they are not able to do it on their own.

Harsh punishment can cause kids to dwell on their anger toward the person inflicting the pain, rather than the reason they got in trouble.

So rather than sit and reflect on how he can do better next time, a child who is forced to sit in the corner for hours may spend their time thinking about how to get revenge on the caregiver who put them there.

What Is Discipline?

Discipline teaches children new skills, such as how to manage their behavior, solve problems, and deal with uncomfortable emotions. Discipline helps kids learn from their mistakes and teaches them socially appropriate ways to deal with emotions, like anger and disappointment. Discipline techniques include strategies such as time-out or the removal of privileges.

The goal is to give kids a clear negative consequence that will help them make a better decision in the future. 

Discipline takes an authoritative approach. Healthy discipline involves giving kids clear rules and consistent negative consequences when they break the rules. Consequences are also time-sensitive. So while punishment may involve a parent removing all electronics indefinitely, discipline might involve taking away the TV for 24 hours when a child refuses to turn it off. 

The Benefits of Discipline

Discipline is proactive, rather than reactive. It prevents many behavior problems and it ensures kids are actively learning from their mistakes. Many discipline techniques involve positive approaches, such as praise and reward systems. Positive reinforcement encourages good behavior to continue and provides kids with clear incentives to follow the rules.

Discipline also fosters positive relationships between parents and kids. And quite often, that positive relationship reduces attention-seeking behavior and motivates kids to behave.  While discipline allows for appropriate amounts of guilt, it isn't about shaming kids. And that is crucial. A child who feels good about himself is less likely to make poor choices. Instead, he'll have confidence in his ability to manage his behavior. 

A Word From Verywell

The difference between punishment and discipline might be a new concept for some parents, because of the way they were raised. These adults may have experienced various forms of punishment and naturally feel drawn to this type of parenting because it's what they're familiar with. Other adults who had this experience might want to parent a completely different way, yet don't quite know how to make this happen.

Feeling confused and frustrated when it comes to parenting is normal, especially with all the information available about strategies and techniques. Take your time, read a variety of perspectives on discipline, and then come up with a parenting approach that works for you and your family. The key is that you interact with your kids with love and respect and the rest will fall into place.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Howenstein J, Kumar A, Casamassimo PS, Mctigue D, Coury D, Yin H. Correlating parenting styles with child behavior and caries. Pediatr Dent. 2015;(37)1:59-64. 

  2. Mackenzie MJ, Nicklas E, Waldfogel J, Brooks-gunn J. Spanking and child development across the first decade of life. Pediatrics. 2013;132(5):e1118-25.  doi:10.1542/peds.2013-1227

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Steps for using consequences.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and preschoolers.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Discipline: 5 Dos and Don’ts When Your Kids Won’t Listen.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.