Your child has blatantly disobeyed. You are angry and you want to ensure that their bad behavior does not continue. What should you do? How can you inspire better behavior? Should you punish the bad behavior or discipline your child to motivate better behavior? Wait, aren’t punishment and discipline the same thing? Punishment and discipline may seem similar, and sometimes we use the terms interchangeably, but in actuality they are distinctly different approaches to correction. Though they both seek to stop bad behavior from repeating, punishment and discipline are quite different.
Put simply, punishment looks back at past bad behavior and seeks to exact justice or retribution. A child is spanked for disobedience, a son’s mouth is washed out with soap for lying, a teen is grounded for staying out past curfew. At its best, punishment creates negative experiences that deter children from repeating bad behavior. At its worst, punishment is merely revenge. Discipline differs from punishment in that it is less concerned with demanding justice or enacting penalty for past behavior and more concerned with trying to shape and encourage good behavior in the future. A discipline approach to parenting may look like punishment at times when a parent allows children to experience painful, corrective consequences, but the motivation behind the correction is always discipleship and restoration.
Christ Jesus died for the atonement of all of our sins. As Christians, we recognize that Jesus has already paid the cost for the sins our children have and will commit. As parents, it is not our role to demand satisfaction for our children’s sins. Vengeance is the Lord’s. Instead, our focus should be on discipleship—cultivating future good behavior and restoration of relationship.
This does not mean that discipline is void of negative consequences. Removing privileges may serve to remind a child that they are required to treat one another respectfully. Additional chores can guide children to remember to respect others by cleaning up behind themselves. When a child is tempted to throw a toy again they will hopefully remember how that toy was taken away when they did not care for their belongings the last time. Negative consequences should always be linked to the bad behavior to motivate better behavior going forward. When a child sits on the time-out bench to think about their bad choice it may look like a punishment, but using the time to reflect on who was hurt by their choice and discerning how to make amends is an important aspect of the discipline process.
However, any corrective measures are less about reprimanding past behavior and more about restoring relationships between the offender, the offended, and the wider community. Discipline seeks to cultivate healthier behaviors going forward. It begins with conversation. It is important to talk with your child and to help them recognize their bad choices. It is also import to help children cultivate empathy by discussing the hurt their actions inflicted on others. Discipline conversations focus on helping children see their error and guiding them to a more empathetic response. Finally, discipline ends with your child making amends for the harm they many have caused others. Restoration of relationship is always the end goal of discipline.
It is easier, and often faster, to inflict a punishment for bad behavior than to discipline. The process of discipline is more involved. A discipline-focused approach seeks to understand the situation fully in order to make wise decisions about what restitution is needed to achieve restoration. A discipline approach recognizes that children learn best from the natural consequences of their actions. Discipline is concerned with what consequences a child should experience in order to inspire them to make better choices going forward. As parents, we should empathize with the painfulness of our children’s consequences, but we shouldn’t rescue our kids from experiencing them. When disciplining, we shouldn’t withhold our love, but instead hold our children close—we should love them even when their choices upset us.
Punishment is reactive. It comes from a place of anger and frustration. When our children don’t heed our wisdom, we are naturally hurt. It is exasperating to repeatedly bump up against the same lousy behavior. When our children ignore our rules or advice, it is tempting to react in anger. In frustration, it’s natural to want to demand obedience or assert our power and authority by punishing a child’s behavior. But punishment offers only negative consequences. It utilizes guilt and fear to motivate behavior. Punishment is really about the punisher—by lashing out we find a release for our frustration. Discipline, in contrast, requires that we set aside our frustration to lovingly focus on the child, to help them cultivate better understanding and thus better relational behavior moving forward.
Both punishment and discipline can change a child’s behavior in the short term, but they have very different long-term consequences. Because punishment is rooted in guilt and fear, the motivation for compliance is not to become a better person, but to avoid harm. When the punisher is out of the child’s range of influence, the motivation for the child to obey disappears. Living in fear can also fracture parent-child relationships and leave lifelong scars. There is no restorative justice when our relationship with our child is crippled by an unhealthy yielding of authority.
Discipline in contrast is done in the context of love. It fosters relationships and inspires an internalization of values. Discipline by design cultivates our character. Hebrews 12:11 states, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Punishment may be the simple response to disobedience, but its value is short-lived. It is worth the effort to invest in discipline to nurture our children into lives of discipleship. Discipline requires us to restrain our anger and lean into the relationship, investing in our child’s character. So when a child disobeys, refrain from punishment and dig deeper to uproot the bad behavior and cultivate discipleship.