Parenting: Discipline v. Punishment
By Jonathan D. Sherman, LMFT

Often there is little distinction between punishment and discipline. The more we study relationships, human interaction patterns and psychology we see that some parenting approaches are simply more effective than others. Because of this it will serve us well to make the distinction between punishment and discipline very clear.

Guiding Principle: Punishment is a short-term solution for creating long-term problems.

Punishment is something negative or painful (such as yelling, hitting, insulting, berating, lecturing and so forth) that is used as an attempt to control a child’s behavior. Children develop the ability to control themselves when they are very young through the methods that we choose to discipline them. While children do need clear limits, punishment as defined above is usually not effective for developing responsible children who later become responsible adults.

In Dr. Stephen H. Glenn’s excellent Developing Responsible Children Parenting Program he argues that while punishment can control others’ behavior to some degree, there are costs or risks when using punishment. For example:

• Punishment teaches children to be more adept at not getting caught.
• Physical punishment is very hard to deliver consistently and fairly.
• Punishment teaches children to punish others.
• The punisher gets punished.
• Punishment sets up negative behavior cycles.
• Punishment makes parents responsible for children’s behavior.

Jane Nelson, in her book Positive Discipline, discusses several common myths related to punishment. Here are five of them along with the corresponding realities of the effects of punishment.

Myth: Children continue to misbehave because the punishment did not produce enough suffering.
Reality: Increased severity of punishment produces a revenge cycle that becomes explosive in the teen years.

Myth: Children, while being punished, are feeling sorry and planning to change their behavior.
Reality: Most of the time children are vowing not to get caught the next time and/or how they will get even.

Myth: I must win power struggles in order to stay in control.
Reality: Children have power that teachers or parents cannot touch. They have the power to choose their behavior. Normal children choose behaviors they perceive will meet their need for belonging and importance. What teachers and parents must do to have long-term success with children is to recognize that power and show children there are positive ways to meet their needs. Adults in power struggles lose track of the primary objective of changing the child's behavior from negative to positive and simply try to get even with the child.

Myth: Parents and teachers dislike using punishment.
Reality: While parents and teachers often feel guilty about using punishment, they also find the feeling of power very rewarding.

Myth: The child must feel worse before he will perform better.
Reality: A misbehaving child is often a discouraged child whose basic needs are not being met. Further pain and neglect will decrease problems over the short term but increase them over the long term.

Guiding Principle: Discipline is a short-term investment that has positive long-term returns

Discipline teaches a child to obey rules, make better choices and control his or her own behavior. Jim Fay and Foster Cline, MD of the Love and Logic Institute encourage the use of natural and logical consequences instead of punishments. I have found the book Parenting with Love and Logic to be one of the most helpful approaches I come across in my professional work with parents, as well as in my own parenting of my four children. It is effective and respectful to both children and parents as the focus helps lessen ineffective yelling, anger and lectures by replacing them with methods that help children learn to become truly responsible for their own choices. Let us, then, examine both natural and logical consequences.

Natural consequences are things that happen as a result of an action. If we do not put gas in the car, the natural consequence is that it will run out of gas. If we touch a hot stove, the natural consequence is that we will get burned. No one has to do anything to make these consequences happen. One of the best ways to discipline children is using natural consequences whenever possible. However there are certainly times when allowing natural consequences is not an acceptable means of discipline.

It is not usually a good idea to allow natural consequences when the natural consequence does not present an immediate problem for the child. For example, when the child fails to clean his or her room, fails to brush their teeth or begins early dating. Furthermore, it is not a good idea to allow natural consequences when the results are dangerous. For example, when the child is playing with cleansers under the sink, walking in the street, or driving irresponsibly.

Logical consequences are results that can be created that are closely related to the behavior. Logical consequences simply “make sense.” There is usually some human involvement, such as a highway patrolman, an insurance company, a teacher, or parent. For example, a natural consequence of speeding would be having an accident. The logical consequence would be getting a ticket, having insurance rates raised, or losing your driver's license.

Our decisions for structuring consequences should follow the Three R’s. Our responses should be 1. Related to the misbehavior, 2. Respectful to the person involved, and 3. Reasonable in amount. Consequences work best when they are set up in advance and agreed to by both parents and children. While this is not always possible, many problems such as broken curfews, fights with brothers and sisters, and uncompleted chores occur regularly and the consequences can be planned and agreed to in advance.

Most importantly, we must remember that discipline should be done with an attitude of love with the intention of teaching children to make good choices, accepting responsibility for their actions and the subsequent consequences.

Practical Application: Plenty of positive parenting tools to choose from.

Natural Consequences: Allowing the child to experience the results of his or her behavior by not intervening. If Susie forgets her softball glove, she will be unable to try out for the team.

Logical Consequences: Imposing consequences as directly related as possible to the inappropriate behavior. If Tommy broke the window, he can do extra chores to earn the money to pay for the window.

Encouragement/Praise: Identifying specific behaviors and strengths that encourage the child to develop and increase self-esteem. “That model car looks great! I like the color you chose. You did a job you can proud of!”
Positive Communication: Using language in positive terms to describe what you want, rather than what you don't want. For example, a parent saying, “Walk around the pool” rather than “Stop that running” is focusing on encouraging desired behavior while still getting the point across.

Active Listening: Listening with understanding and then clarifying the statement and responding to the feelings. For example, “It sounds like your teacher really scolded you in class. You must have felt embarrassed.”

“I” Message: Communicating by phrasing in the first person such as, “I feel worried and upset when I don't know where my children are. I would like you to tell me where you are going so I won’t have to worry. Thank you.”

Redirecting: Substituting an acceptable behavior for an unacceptable one. “Carol, you can’t play with Bob’s stereo, but let’s go find your crayons and paper so that you can make a picture.”

Incentives, Rewards and Motivators: Providing short-term incentives to help the child focus on desired behavior. If his job list is done, he can go for ice cream Saturday. The younger the child, the shorter the period of time before a reward should be given.

Removing Privileges: Losing a privilege related to the unacceptable behavior. The loss should be of short-term duration. Losing use of the phone, time with friends or TV, and so forth could be used depending on what is important to the particular child.

Contracting: Negotiating with the child to create a written mutual agreement that provides incentives to help the child, particularly with adolescents, focus on a desired behavior. If Tom passes with at least a “B” average, he will have more time for recreation next semester.

Role Modeling: Showing by example the behavior one wants from the child. If one shows respect for the child’s property and privacy, the child will learn to respect the property and privacy of others.

Time-Out: Removing the child from the situation, usually to their room. Many find that generally one to two minutes per year of the child's age is sufficient. I prefer to let the child decide when he or she has “cooled off” enough and is to participate appropriately as a member of the family. Sometimes the child has to wait a little longer until the parent, too, has “cooled off.” While achieving similar effects as a “timed” time-out, this variation communicates respect for the child to calm down at their own pace as well as communicating that both parties need to be “ready” to re-engage with each other.

Practical Application: Three Exercises

Exercise 1: Close your eyes and remember how your parents disciplined or punished you as a child. Why kinds were used? How did it make you feel? How effective was it? Why?

Exercise 2: Make a list of the five ongoing discipline problems that regularly happen in your family. Write a consequence for each of the problems you listed that use the Three R’s: being related, respectful and reasonable.

Exercise 3: Think back to the last time you gave consequences to your children. What kind was used? How did it make you feel? How effective was it? Did it accomplish its purpose? How might using the natural and logical consequences you have listed from the above activity have helped?

Looking for more help with your parenting? Log on to for more resources and enter for a chance to win a copy of Parenting with Love and Logic or Backtalk: Four Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids. Also, some have expressed a desire for me to conduct a parenting group in our area that provides support, education and creative interventions. This would involve more than just a class setting and group size would be limited. Here we can share ideas, improve current parenting and introduce new skills. If you would be interested in such a group please contact me (see below). As soon as there are enough people willing to commit to such an endeavor I will be happy to initiate such a group in our community.

Watch future columns for more strategies for creating greatness in your relationships.

Jonathan Sherman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Consultant specializing in creating "greatness in relationships." He is experienced in assisting people learn to improve their marriages, their parenting and themselves through skill development, life coaching, overcoming depression and anxiety, stress and anger management, and addiction recovery. He teaches extensively on a wide range of relationship topics. He is the founder of Bardos Relationship Consulting. He is married to a skillled husband trainer who has truly earned her keep. They live in eternal bliss (okay, fairly peaceably) with their four children in American Fork, UT. You may reach him at 801.787.8014, or at
Parenting Experiences
What things have you tried that you have found to be most helpful in your parenting? Send your ideas to and I'll post them here.

Subscribe to the
Great Relationships eZine!
Get the latest articles, tips, ideas and suggestions on parenting, marriage, family and self.

It takes less than ten seconds. Just click here to subscribe.

This article provided courtesy of Bardos Relationship Consulting• 801.787.8014 •