Many people do not know that discipline and punishment are not the same.

Defining Discipline and Punishment

The words discipline and punishment are often thought of as meaning the same thing but they actually mean different things.

Discipline comes from the Latin word ‘to teach’ and aims to help children take responsibility for their own behaviour through teaching acceptable ways to behave. It is a nurturing response by parents and helps children to develop self-discipline and confidence as they grow.

Punishment is associated with something called ‘negative reinforcement’ – using something aversive or unwanted upon a child to let them know you don’t approve of their behaviour. This includes things like removing privileges (e.g. not be able to watch TV) or giving them a time out. It may also include physical force (e.g. smacking).

What are the Aims of Punishment and Discipline?

The aim of effective discipline changes at different stages of a child’s development. For young children, it is mostly about giving lessons about their behaviour, which keeps them safe and helps the parent-child relationship grow. As a child reaches around 6 years of age effective discipline also begins to teach children the values that are important to you and encourages them to think about their own behaviour and learn to make positive choices.

The aim of punishment is less complex and involves discouraging children from doing something which may be unwanted or dangerous.

Which is More Effective Discipline or Punishment?

Research suggests punishment (negative reinforcement) is less effective at changing children’s behaviour than the opposite which is called positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement uses a child’s natural wish to please their parents. It includes rewarding children with something a child enjoys and wishes to regain. This encourages them to repeat the behaviour you want again and again rather than punishing them for an unwanted behavior. The reward does not have to be a "thing" either like a toy. Congratulating a child on doing a great job cleaning their room is an example of positive reinforcement. 

Children need repeated opportunities to have their behaviour reinforced in a positive way before they learn a rule. This is because children’s brains are not fully formed, so they need the same rule repeated over and over again before it becomes part of their normal pattern of thinking and acting.

When Can Punishement Work?

Punishment (negative reinforcement) can also be an effective parenting tool if it is balanced with rewards (positive reinforcement). Not allowing your child to do something they like to do temporarily can be effective in highlighting a broken rule. Time out in a bedroom, sitting near you in a social situation, taking away their favourite toy or restricting TV time are all methods that can be used successfully. Such negative reinforcement methods must be done as soon as possible after the behaviour you want to stop so your child can make the connection between the consequence and their misbehaviour.

Parents should also explain to children what they have done wrong and link the consequence they have received as a result. Parents should explain this link a few times, including the next day when everyone is calmer and the child is more receptive to the explanation.

While punishment like time outs can have an effective role in discipline, research now shows the use of physical punishment (e.g. smacking) is not that helpful. If parents use physical punishment when they are angry or frustrated, they may hurt their child their child even if that is not their intent, so physical punishment has some risk for a child. This is the main reason there is so much debate about its use by parents. It is also important to remember that children cannot learn anything when they feel frightened or worried. As physical punishment can be scary or upsetting for children it removes any benefits of the use of punishment. Using other types of punishment (as suggested above) are more effective as they don’t include these strong emotional feelings so children are more able to not only learn but remember the lesson.

Understanding the Cause of Bad Behaviour

Finally, if a child is misbehaving it is helpful to try to understand what the cause is. Often misbehaviour is a sign of another problem like hunger or tiredness. Dealing with the cause of the problem often decreases or stops the misbehaviour.


With thanks to Joe Tucci, Australian Childhood Foundation.