Discipline, Correction and Punishment

Monday, February 11, 2019

Discipline, Correction and Punishment

In my line of work, I often work with families who are experiencing some disruption in their household functioning.  I get called in to assess and help them develop their strengths and resources so they can self-correct.  When the issues revolve around the relationship between the parent(s) and the child(ren), we often have to discuss their parenting skills and philosophy.

Parenting philosophy?  Who ever sits down and thinks through what their philosophy of parenting is going to be?  We just kind of "do" parenting, right?  With few exceptions, people mostly learn how to be a parent because of their "starter kid" (kid #1).  We go to birthing classes to make sure we can survive the trauma of childbirth, but no parent comes through the process of child-rearing unchanged.

So, most families I work with have never considered their parenting philosophy.  Particularly, the model used for discipline in a family is usually either 1) I know how I was raised and it seemed to work pretty well OR 2) I will never do (insert parenting action) to my child!  Either way, the main approach to parenting seems to be reactionary rather than proactive.

Now, I know that the dictionary definitions will list the following words as synonyms, but I believe that they have distinct connotations (that is, we have other thoughts and feelings that are attached to our usage of these words beyond what the dictionary says).  The words are: Discipline, Correction and Punishment.  I often hear people use the words interchangeably, as having the same, or similar meanings.  This is because their usage reflects their mentality about their parenting philosophy, ie it is reactionary.  It means, I primarily respond to how my children are feelings and behaving rather than being proactive and teaching them how to behave and feel.

The Words We Use

Here is the distinction I make between those concepts:

Discipline: Comes from the Latin root discere, which means to learn (we get the word discern from it) and from the Latin word disciplus, which means pupil. So, someone who disciplines (the parent) is someone who teaches.  This word, properly used, then should have a positive connotation.  Teaching and learning are associated with growth and development and strength.

Correction: This concept has to do with setting thing right (also from the Latin, corrigere, from which we also get the word corrigible: the ability of something to be changed, reformed or improved).  From a systems perspective, it can mean "to reverse a trend or pattern".  Again, this has a very positive connotation.  Making things right is empowering.

Punishment: This is the act of inflicting penalty on someone who has done something wrong; to treat roughly, to injure or hurt, to cause a loss of freedom or money or to provide physical pain for wrongdoing.  This clearly carries with it negative thoughts and feelings.  Inflict, withhold, deny, punish, penalize... all words that indicate that one would want to avoid what is connected with them.

So part of a healthy philosophy of parenting (in my experience) would be: Children deserve to be disciplined and corrected.  Children do not deserve to be punished.  If it is true that children are in the process of being formed and developed and growing, then naturally, they deserve to be taught how to feel and behave and corrected, or set on the right path, when they deviate.

Discipline, then, is a long process that evolves to meet the changing needs of a developing child.  A parent who disciplines a child is a parent who teaches a child how to manage their emotions and control their behaviors.  When a child grows with that sort of teaching and guidance, the child should naturally develop a confidence in his/her own ability to self regulate those emotions and behaviors and very little correction should be necessary.

Why is it then, that the topic of discipline and correction of children such a challenge for parents?  Here are some possible answers:

1) Parents have inadequate coping skills for their own anxiety and thus are hindered in their ability to help their children cope with theirs.

2) Some children have experienced traumas which makes understanding rules and expectations challenging.

3) Many parents have inaccurate knowledge of how children grow and develop so they respond inappropriately to their children, based on their stage of development.

4) A common mindset for parents is that discipline = punishment and so they end up RESPONDING to inappropriate behavior, but never teaching and guiding to right behavior.

5) Humans learn by observation and some parents end up teaching their children, by their own behavior, how to cope with emotions and relationships in unhealthy ways, and then blame their children for not knowing better.

There are probably more reasons, based on specific circumstances, but that is sufficient to prove my point about how most parents don't ever stop to consider *how* they do their parenting.  We take it for granted that we will be in relationship with our kids because, well, they are our children.  So we tend to ignore the skill and maintenance that goes into regular relationships.  Skills like; spending quality time together, building trust, fostering communication, caring for the other...

I could go on and on, but the point I wanted to make with this post is this: "Children deserve to be disciplined (taught and guided in what is right) and corrected (set straight when they make poor choices).  Children do not deserve to be punished."

-Jeffrey Emery, LMFT-S

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