Punishment vs. Discipline

We have recently been looking over some pamphlets that were published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the major professional organization that supports quality programs for children under eight years of age and provides information and resources for the educators who work with these children.  I found the following definitions, which delineate some of the differences between discipline or guidance and punishment, informative as well as thought provoking.

“Children are disciplined when…

  • they are shown positive alternatives rather than just told no
  • they see how their actions affect others
  • good behavior is rewarded, (i.e. they see the results or consequences of their good behavior)
  • adults establish fair, simple rules and enforce them consistently

Children are punished when…

  • their behavior is controlled through fear
  • their feelings are not respected
  • they behave to avoid a penalty or get a bribe
  • they adult tells the child only what not to do

Children who are disciplined…

  • learn to share and cooperate
  • are better able to handle their own anger
  • are more self-disciplined
  • feel successful and in control of themselves

Children who are punished…

  • feel humiliated
  • hide their mistakes
  • tend to be angry and aggressive
  • fail to develop control of themselves”

I have found that many of their definitions and projections regarding the impact of discipline and punishment generally hold true for most children.  Where I tend to have a different perspective is primarily in the choice of specific words.  Depending upon the age of the children I would hope that children are not simply “shown” positive alternatives (although I certainly agree that just saying no does not help a child to learn about positive interactions and their results) but are involved in conversations about what happens if you___. There is a lot of data supporting this approach, based on the value that we want to raise children who, understanding the  consequence of a behavior, will make better decisions in the future.

It’s interesting that when one of us worked at a University, we found the most “acting out” student behavior came from freshmen who had been tightly controlled or supervised by their parents during high school. They hadn’t developed an internal gyroscope to keep them even, but instead felt that the reason for self-restraint was to avoid “getting in trouble.”

There is some interesting information available regarding the use of good/bad, rather that involves rewards or verbal praise. The issue of course, is that these are simply the two poles of the same thing and rewarding of the good introduces, however subtly, the specter of  the “bad.” What the psyche says is,

“Humm, I did good this time. Now, the pressure’s on, because if I don’t do good again, then obviously that will be bad.”

The concern is the rewarding of good behavior as rewards and punishments are just opposite sides of the same coin.  If the goal is for children to develop self-control then external rewards undermine that process.  Self-control is slowly acquired and mastered and begins in toddlerhood.  External motivations such as rewards or negative incentives such as punishments which come from others work against the child’s internal development of self-control.

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