Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Discipline and Punishment Are Not the Same Thing

Why is it that so many people equate punishment with discipline? There are those who think that nothing has been learned until a child has been punished, but this doesn't make sense. If children don't learn without being punished, then how do they learn to sit up, crawl, walk, speak, identify colors and letters, read, do math, and so on? Children learn to do thousands of things without being punished, so why do we think that they must be punished in order to learn how to behave appropriately?

Discipline is about teaching, but punishments do absolutely nothing to teach children the actual skills they need to behave better in the future. How can you hold a person accountable for skills they have not been taught? Furthermore, if parents take care to actively, purposely teach their children the correct skills and behaviors, adding a punishment onto it is unnecessary, illogical, and can actually hinder the child from learning what is being taught.

Besides that, the "make 'em pay" attitude doesn't jive at all with Christian beliefs about Jesus and grace, so why are Christians often the first ones to defend the practice of punishment when it comes to their children? Yes, God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, but this is not at all the same as punishment. We have received the gift of grace, yet we insist upon punishing the children with whom we have been entrusted by God.

Children, too, must be allowed to feel the actual consequences of their choices if they are to learn to be responsible for their actions. This can be hard for parents, because in the process, their children will experience painful emotions like anger, disappointment, and embarrassment. Notice that it is not the adult's responsibility to "make" the child feel those things! True discipline is painful, but not because the adult makes it painful; it is because learning from one's own mistakes is naturally not an easy, painless experience. You know this from your own life experiences, I'm sure.

Consequences definitely have a place within discipline, if the consequences are appropriate and are given with the intent to teach skills rather than to make the child feel bad. And no, "I'm gonna teach that kid a lesson!" is not the same thing as teaching helpful, real-life skills that will be useful to them in the future. ;-) Of course, there are natural consequences for certain things; these are consequences that just happen on their own. If you don't wear a jacket on a cold day, you get cold. If you choose not to eat your dinner, you get hungry later. That sort of thing. There are also logical consequences that can be imposed by adults. A logical consequence for coloring on the wall, for example, would be to have the child help clean the crayon markings off the wall and to put the crayons up or not allow them to be used unsupervised. A punishment, on the other hand, would be to spank them or send them to time out. I've heard people say that you have to spank kids to teach them that there are consequences for their actions, but that's just not true. Natural and/or logical consequences teach them that. When I mess up, no one spanks me to show me that there are consequences for my actions. I just experience the actual consequences and I learn from my mistake. That is what we need to help our children do.

There is a lot more information about how to use consequences effectively and how to teach kids problem-solving skills in chapter 9 of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. To me, it seems that the most important thing to understand is what I have basically written about here: punishment and discipline are not the same, and punishment and consequences have entirely different goals.

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