Punishment works … just not the way you want


Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

When PBS NewsHour ran a column headlined “Why you should never use time-outs on your kids,” parents had furious reactions. Part of the reason is confusion over the terms punishment and discipline.

The words are often used interchangeably. But there is a difference, and we owe it to our children to know it.

Punishment is to make kids suffer to teach them a lesson.

Discipline is to model acceptable behavior to help kids practice acceptable behavior.

Bonus download: The secret to time-outs that work

Advice about “how not to punish” is talking specifically about inflicting suffering. The alternative is not, as many parents fear, “let your child act any way they want.”

The alternative is discipline.
What does discipline mean?

Discipline means to teach.

It’s from the Latin disciplina: “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” But look up the word’s etymology and you also get: early 13c., “penitential chastisement; punishment,” from Old French descepline (11c.) “discipline, physical punishment; teaching; suffering; martyrdom.” The word has been synonymous with punishment for hundreds of years.

Essentially, researchers and parenting educators are trying to culturally redefine discipline using its Latin root, while reserving the term punishment for physical or emotional punishment.

But if you haven’t gotten the memo, you’re not alone. Some of this research has been around for decades and not everyone knows about it. I’m hoping my book can make a difference here, with its super easy format.

For example, the research on hitting kids is incredibly consistent: it’s harmful in a host of ways. Forty-two countries have banned it. Yet in U.S. surveys, 70% of parents say it’s sometimes “necessary” to give kids “a good, hard spanking.”

So, something’s not working. (Just in case the problem is long, boring parenting books, I’ve written one for you that’s cool + easy.)

Would it be better to just ditch the word discipline and come up with a new word?

You’ve seen people trying to popularize other terms: Positive Discipline. Positive Parenting. Peaceful Parenting. Conscious Parenting. Mindful Parenting. Thoughtful Parenting. The first printing of my book has a section called Discipline. In the second printing, it’s called Guide.

These are all attempts to get parents out of the mindset that their job is to control their child’s every behavior–and to punish the behavior they don’t like.

Do you have that “control” mindset now? I did, before writing Zero to Five.

It was just the default setting in my head before having a kid: You tell them what to do, and they’re supposed to do it. If they don’t, there should be consequences. Otherwise, how would they learn? Then I had a kid, and I could see that my default setting would only set us up for power struggles and resentment.

So I argued with myself for some time. Finally, I got what the positive parenting people were getting at. Here is roughly my progression in thinking:

1. My child should obey me.

The tactics known to get immediate obedience from a child are known to be harmful. Punishment works to get obedience, but it hurts kids and relationships.

I need to change my definition of “works.”

2. And, wow, I can’t actually control another person. Thought I could, because she was so compliant as an infant, but clearly that is inaccurate. I can’t literally make her do something every time I want her to. And if I absolutely expect that she will, then when she won’t, the only end game I have is force.

OK, obedience is not my goal. My goal is for my daughter to learn the life skills and values she needs to be a thriving adult.

3. Then I need to think long-term. Not about what will make her an obedient kid, but what will help her become a great kid and then a great adult. Obedience would be a lot more convenient for me. But I will do this for my child.

How? I know that:

4. Kids learn in two ways: by imitation and by experience. They learn by practicing many, many times. That means

  • taking the time to show her and let her do things.
  • helping her see perspectives, think for herself, and come to solutions.
  • seeing her mistakes simply as messages to me that this one’s gonna take more time.
  • pointing out her successes.
  • accepting how deeply my own actions guide her. It just doesn’t make sense if I hit her to teach her not to hit. Or yell at her to teach her to speak respectfully. She’ll learn the opposite of what I intended.

5. Warm relationships are the No. 1 key to happiness, as the Harvard Grant study revealed.

My relationship with my child and my relationship with my husband: these will be my child’s template for relationships with others. That’s not fuzzy psychology talk. That’s literally true neurologically–in the way her brain will become wired.

I want to act in ways that strengthen instead of weaken our relationship.

In essence, my job as a parent is to coach. Not control.

Punishment? That’s short-term thinking. I’m playing the long game.

And if that sounds good to you, too, that’s what my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, will help you do.




Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.





2 thoughts on “Punishment works … just not the way you want



  1. I wrote about parenting without punishment, and thought to share my take on it in case it helps. The key is to discipline and correct your child while explaining throughout why you are doing it, what the desired goal is, and providing the tools to reach that goal. I divided the discipline into three levels.

    The first level is your immediate response to the action.These are instant deterrents – actions we take to immediately stop or respond to the incorrect behavior, that are meant to be memorable or unpleasant and so make the children refrain from doing it again. It could be anything from taking the child on your lap, to a frown, to a firm statement, or physical action. It must depend on the child and the situation.These should come with a clear explanation of what wrong action is being responded to and why. For example, “I smacked your hand away to stop you burning it on the stove. You must not reach for the pans or try to touch the fire on the stove, because you will get burned and it will hurt you.” So the instant response is a “deterrent.”

    Some behaviors are only addressed by a deterrent and an accompanying explanation. However, if those deterrents don’t work, then parents must look for alternative strategies, such as taking something away from the child that they like each time they repeat the undesired behavior. This has to be something that is effective for that individual child and their circumstances. If you tell the child they will not be allowed to play in the yard for that day, but they don’t like playing in the yard and sit for hours with video games, then it isn’t an appropriate or effective “correction strategy.” The correction strategy must be based on things that the child will not like or want on a continual basis, to make them stop the undesired behavior.

    In addition, there are bad habits or behaviors that may require a more lengthy correction plan. These are called “rectification programs.” An example of this would be a child who continually speaks badly or causes enmity amongst their siblings. That child may be separated from the others for a period of time, effectively cutting off communication until the self control to communicate positively is acquired or put into practice. During that period, it is important to provide them with the tools for rectification such as strategies, stories that give examples, etc. that address the behavior(s) to be corrected. It is best to make the rectification program for a short period of time, and then test the waters to see if there is improvement. If not, the program can be extended and further developed or intensified.

    Throughout the process of addressing a child’s dangerous, undesirable, or incorrect behavior, it is important that you explain what you are doing, advising the child that it is meant to set them right so they will have a truly happy and successful life. In using the terms deterrent, correction strategy, and rectification program, you are informing the child of the purpose for your actions and also reminding yourself. You will find that you come up with far more appropriate and effective responses to your child’s behavior when you think in those terms. Rather than take a blanket approach of looking at the wall for every offense, you will understand that different actions require different reactions and find more success in your relationship with your children.

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