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5 Common Misconceptions About Discipline and Punishment

The word ‘discipline’ invariably evokes different ideas, emotions and reactions in different people.  It is perhaps a subject that attracts the most attention in the domain of parenting, as reflected in titles such as “Dare to Discipline,” “Positive Discipline,” “Discipline with Dignity,” and “Discipline with Love.”

While most parents would agree to the common goals of disciplining children such as to teach children self-control, to cultivate self-discipline, and to impart values, little consensus is observed in the methods or means for achieving these goals.  In short, many agree on the WHAT and WHY of child discipline, but not on the HOW.   And one of the major areas of controversy is the use of corporal punishment on children – a topic that continues to attract heated debates between its proponents and opponents in most countries throughout the world.

Rather than attempting to answer “To cane or not to cane?” this article invites you to transcend this perennial controversy by examining the notion of Non-Punitive Discipline – an approach for disciplining children that does not use any form of punishment.  In this context, punishment refers to any action by the parent in response to the child that is directed either at correcting the latter’s behavior or deterring future recurrence of certain behaviours by inflicting some form of pain or discomfort, be it physical, mental or emotional.  

The form of punishment may be physical or non-physical.  Common examples of physical punishment include caning, spanking and smacking.  Examples of non-physical punishment include scolding, deprivation or removal of privileges, withdrawal of love, and time-out that are punitive in nature.

Whatever your pre-existing ideas about discipline or stance on corporal punishment may be, I encourage you to put them aside temporarily, and seek to understand the nature and merits of Non-Punitive Discipline before making a judgment on whether it is worth practicing in your family.   Let’s begin this journey by examining the 5 common misconceptions about discipline and punishment.

Misconception #1: Discipline means punishment

In the minds of many, discipline is synonymous with punishment.    Hence, the notion of ‘non-punitive discipline’ is unfathomable.   To them, not punishing children means not disciplining them, and that is clearly undesirable.   Without discipline, children are likely to grow up to be spoilt, disrespectful, and even uncontrollable.  But in truth, punishment is not the same as discipline.

To better understand the meaning of discipline, perhaps one ought to turn to the various related root words.  In Latin, disciplina means “instruction”, discere means “to learn,” and discipulus means “disciple or pupil.”   As such, in the context of parenting, discipline could be more appropriately taken to mean “instructing children with the aim of helping them to learn,” somewhat like what a teacher does with his pupil.  The key questions we ought to answer then are “What should we teach our children?” and “How can we best help them learn?”

Conversely, to punish children is to make them ‘pay’ for their mistakes or experience the undesirable consequences of their actions, often with the intent of making them learn to be responsible for their actions or deter them from repeating certain behaviours.  Punishment almost always generates some form of negative emotions in both the parent and the child. It also tends to have an adverse effect on parent-child relationship.  Children who are punished often experience feelings of guilt, anger, or resentment.  Common sense would warn us that putting children in a negative state of being is not conducive for their learning, no matter what lesson we wish to impart to them. 

Hence, although punishment is perhaps one of the most widely observed response to children’s misbehaviours (thanks to our cultural tradition), it is not the same as discipline, and is seldom effective in fulfilling the goals of discipline.  Once the distinction between discipline and punishment is clear, perhaps the possibility for non-punitive discipline can become more real.

Misconception #2: No punishment equals permissiveness

“No punishment? But surely children must not be permitted to do whatever they want.”  That is one of the most common reactions to Non-Punitive Discipline.   It is ironic that discussions on child discipline often end up in a simplistic dichotomy between punishment (or strictness) and permissiveness. 

Permissiveness is commonly considered as undesirable.  But don’t confuse not punishing children with allowing them to do whatever they want without restraint.  There is no doubt that children need to learn to behave in a socially responsible and morally upright manner, but punishment isn’t the best way to facilitate their learning.  What they need is on-going parental guidance, and sometimes, limits, rather than punishment. 

Non-Punitive Discipline calls for a readiness on the parent to be both firm and kind.  Being firm entails asserting one’s rights in a respectful manner.  In being firm, we avoid allowing children to boss us around, to climb over our heads (figuratively) or to treat us disrespectfully.  But we need not be nasty in order to be firm.  We could be kind too.

Being kind doesn’t mean we have to allow children to act freely all the time, even to the extent of violating others’ rights.  That would be unkind to those who are adversely affected by our children’s disrespectful behaviours.   Although at times, we might need to intervene or respond when children misbehave, interventions need not necessarily be punitive.  For example, when young children get into a fight, we could have them physically separated and take time to cool down before they are allowed to play with one another again.  There is no need to embark on a lengthy investigation on “Who started it?” or “Who did what?”  Fault finding often leads to more hostility.

Does that mean fighting is permitted or encouraged? Absolutely not!  Not punishing children doesn’t mean doing nothing about it.  We need to guide them towards adopting behaviours that are more desirable or appropriate.  However, in teaching, timing is everything.  Reasoning with children when they are emotionally charged is often futile.  When the kids have cooled down, we could invite them to reflect on their actions and explore non-violent alternatives for settling their disputes. 

Misconception #3: Sparing the rod and spoil the child

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is probably one of the most frequently quoted justifications for the use of corporal punishment.  Many have mistakenly believed it to be a biblical teaching and hence accept it readily without question.  Consequently, they turned to the rod for fear of spoiling their children.

In truth, the origin of the above phrase can be traced to a satirical poem by Samuel Butler, first published in 1662.  The notion of ‘spoiling’ the child is never mentioned in the Bible, although the phrase ‘spares the rod’ does appear in the book of Proverbs.  According to the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Proverbs 13:24 reads: 

“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”

What does the above verse mean? Unfortunately, the interpretation of biblical verses is often subject to one’s personal biases and degree of understanding of the scripture.  While some presume that the “rod” literally means a stick for hitting one’s child, others (particularly Christian scholars) suggest that it refers to the shepherd’s staff which was used to guide and protect the sheep, and not for hitting his flock.  For further reading, see What is the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs?

It is clearly beyond the scope of this article to address problems with interpreting the scripture.  What is important is that one rectifies the popular misconception that “spare the rod and spoil the child” is biblical in origin. 

Misconception #4: Punishment isn’t necessarily harmful

Our beliefs are inevitably shaped by our personal experiences.  Some of us believe that punishment (especially corporal punishment) is less harmful than reported in academic research.   “I turn out fine” is a common testimonial that reflects that point of view.  A minority are even grateful to their parents for being ‘strict’ on them during their childhood, as they observed how some of their peers whose parents are more lax on discipline had gone astray.  Conversely, there are those who vow not to subject their children to the harsh punishments they received from their parents. 

At the personal level, all views are necessarily valid.  However, it is dangerous to assume that what works for oneself will work for one’s child.  Our children are growing up in a drastically different environment than the ones we experienced during our childhood.  Corporal punishment was once a norm, be it at home or at school.  But that is not necessarily the same in present  day.

I recall being whipped by my loving mother for naively taking up her challenge to defy her order for me to stay at home.  I recall the disciplinary master roaming the school compound with his unforgiving cane.  I recall that public caning was once a regular feature during school assembly.   Today, students with behavioural issues are met with school counselors who are trained to understand and counsel them.   Rarely are they subjected to corporal punishment.  Evidently, educators are beginning to realise that what these kids need is guidance, help or counsel, and not punishment, especially when majority of behavioural problems in children can be attributed to their home environment.

Ironically, in many homes, the use of punishment continues to be pervasive, sometimes even for the smallest infractions such as not finishing homework on time or not putting away their toys.  Are these kids going to “grow up fine”?  Only time will tell.  But here’s one observation that most professionals who work with children with frequent display of aggression would agree – majority of them come from families that practice physical punishment.   It is an irrefutable fact that children learn from modeling after their parents.

Misconception #5: Punishment is an effective teaching tool

Does punishment work? Of course! Otherwise, it would have been abolished long ago.  But the questions we should examine are: “For what purpose?” and “At what cost?”

Research on the effects of corporal punishment has shown that it is effective for commanding immediate compliance.   An advocate of corporal punishment once shared with me that she had to resort to caning her three-year-old to teach her not to dash across the street recklessly.  It worked most expediently, compared to previous attempts through reasoning, warning, threatening, and nagging. 

However, can we be sure that the young child will do the same in the absence of her mother?  I doubt.  Perhaps, it might be wiser for the adult to take full responsibility of the toddler’s safety by keeping her supervised or in safe hands at all times, at least until she is mature enough to control her impulse. 

Punishment works on the basis of the Principle of Pain and Pleasure.  The explanation is simple.   All human beings are driven by the intrinsic desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure.   Tragic as it may sound, punishment works by inflicting pain on children.  Naturally, the fear of pain and the desire to avoid punishment is a powerful factor that drives compliance.  But, is this how we wish to treat our children – to control their behaviours by inflicting pain?

Punishment, together with reward, are two of the most widely used behavioural management tools featured in a branch of psychology called Behaviourism – a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning.  Desirable behaviours can be fostered through rewards (positive reinforcement) and undesirable behaviours can be discouraged through punishment (negative reinforcement).  Ironically, many are unaware of the fact that even B.F. Skinner, often known as the father of behaviourism, had recommended against the use of punishment or negative reinforcement in education.  Skinner also suggested that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid punishment.

In truth, punishment is a powerful tool for conditioning, but not for teaching.  While we might succeed at conditioning young children to behave in ways that we desire (much like obedience training for canines), teaching children self-discipline requires a different approach that invokes their higher order thinking.

Conclusion

It is imperative for any parent who endeavours to master the fine art of disciplining children to clearly distinguish ‘punishment’ from ‘discipline.’   Examining the above common misconceptions is only the beginning.  I urge you to examine other ideas, beliefs and assumptions that you might hold about punishment and discipline by courageously asking yourself: “Is this really true?”, “How do I know that it is true?”, and “What are the perspectives of those who hold views that are opposite to mine?” 

May the spirit of inquiry bring you closer towards discovering and appreciating the true essence of effective discipline!

Contributed by Kenny Toh, Founder of Institute of Advanced Parentology. Contact author for permission to reprint.