Discipline and Punishment

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Concepts of discipline vary. The conventional elementary school concept of discipline is based on obedience (Gartrell, 1997). Many parents and teachers see punishment as a part of discipline. However, some educators view discipline as a "neutral" term that can exclude punishment (Marion, 1995). Discipline in this article is considered to be different from punishment both in its intent and consequences. It may be referred to as positive discipline or guidance.

Positive Discipline:

  • is guiding and teaching;
  • is done with a child;
  • requires understanding, time, and patience;
  • teaches problem solving and builds a positive self-image;
  • develops long-term self-control and cooperation.


  • is control by fear, power, and coercion;
  • is done to the child;
  • elicits anger, guilt, resentment, and deceit;
  • impairs communication and wholesome parent-child relationships;
  • stops undesired behavior in the specific situation temporarily, but behavior often is exhibited in other ways.

All parents discipline their children by teaching them appropriate ways to behave. However, discipline is interpreted by some parents as correcting or punishing children in order to stop the reoccurrence of unacceptable behavior. Discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, meaning instruction or teaching to correct, strengthen, or perfect. Obviously, the leader models the ideas or principles to be followed. Disciples respect and care for the messenger. If parents want their children to behave in caring and appropriate ways, they must show them how. The ultimate goal of discipline is to have children responsible for their own actions.

Punishment is the use of physical or psychological force or action that causes pain in an attempt to prevent undesirable behavior from recurring. Scolding, threats, deprivations, and spanking are all forms of punishment. Physical punishment of children by parents and teachers is legal in most states and most countries. It is outlawed in Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland (Straus, 1994). Back in the nineteenth century, Froebel wrote that the use of punishment was a good way for adults to make a child "bad." If the goal for the child is the development of morality, of making good choices on his or her own, then punishment should not be involved. Conditions should be created that not only allow but strongly induce children to be or become moral and disciplined individuals who can make good choices on their own (Bettelheim, 1985; Ramsburg, 1997).

Punishment teaches a child that those who have the power can force others to do what they want them to do (Bettelheim, 1985; Samalin and Whitney, 1995). In addition, punishment, such as spanking, does not teach a child an acceptable alternative way to behave (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1995). Punishment is the least effective form of changing behavior and may have long-term consequences. The child feels humiliated, often hides mistakes, tends to be angry and aggressive, and fails to develop self-control. Punishment stops behavior temporarily, but the behavior is often repeated in other settings.

Forms of punishment with fewer negative consequences than physical or psychologically demeaning punishment include ignoring the behavior, showing a mild disapproving look, the use of time out, especially to gain control of one's emotions, and taking away a privilege. Ignoring the behavior can be very effective in eliminating its repetition, especially if it is a new action and not reinforced by someone else. Time out has been overused in recent decades as a way to change children's behavior. Although experts disagree about its use (Ucci, 1998; Schreiber, 1999), it can have negative effects such as embarrassment, anger, or confusion. More importantly, by itself it does not teach a child how to behave differently. It is more effective if time out is followed with a discussion of the actions and support to help the child learn how to behave appropriately. Gartrell (2001, 2002) believes that time out should be replaced with teaching children how to solve social problems rather than punishing them for their behavior over problems they have not yet learned how to solve.

If punishment is used, a number of conditions can increase its effectiveness. It should occur immediately after the problem. It is also more effective when the child is punished by a nurturing person (Baumrind, 1978). There should also be consistency in being punished for an offense. The punishment should include an explanation and allow the child some control over the situation. For example, in using time out, the child should be helped to decide when he or she is able to follow the rules and return to play. During time out the child must be removed from all forces reinforcing the unacceptable behavior.

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