Discipline vs Punishment

by Howard Harris
(submitted by Dusty Andersen)

Discipline is usually held as a very positive value in our culture. Teachers are expected to be able to maintain discipline in the classroom. And if the teacher fails to do this it is the Principal's job to discipline the student offenders in his office. Parents are encouraged from all sides to discipline their children. The alternative is often seen as permissiveness, which is presumed to lead to self-indulgent rude and unruly children. The biblical dictum, "Spare the rod and spoil the child" may be cited in support of adequate parental discipline. And always the self-disciplined individual is seen as successful and admirable.

But there is a problem in the use of terms here. "Discipline" seems to be used in at least three ways - ways which match alternative dictionary definitions, but which are not adequately differentiated in common usage. When used in the context of self-discipline, the word seems to refer to the ability to focus all of one's energy, attention and ability toward achieving ones' personal desired goals. Even if the source of the discipline is outside the self it is still seen as a focusing toward the achievement of goals. However achieved, it is seen as indispensable to the successful life and one of our highest values, even a major component of the "American way."

A second meaning of "discipline" is the maintenance of order in a group, keeping the members of a group focused on a goal, keeping individuals from disturbing or harming each other. Often this is assumed to be possible primarily through the threat of punishment. And finally punishment itself has been identified with discipline, so that when adults administer punishment they are said to be "disciplining" the child.

It is unfortunate that this range of definitions of the word has come to exist, for it tends to obscure what is actually happening. Some kinds of "discipline" lead directly away from the achievement of the most highly valued kind, the self-discipline which makes possible the focusing of all ones abilities toward achieving personally desired goals.

When punishment is being administered we should call it punishment, not discipline, even though the outcome may be the conformity of the punished child to the parent or teacher's goals, so that from the adult's point of view discipline appears to have been achieved, with everyone working toward a goal. But the goal is the adult's goal, not the child's, and the lesson likely to be learned by the child is conformity, not self-discipline.

A child can learn self-discipline only by experiencing it, along with the experience of achievement which self-discipline makes possible. It must be a satisfying experience that the child will want to repeat. Only in this way can the child gain the motivation necessary for self-discipline, as well as to learn how to organize his life so that success is possible.

The child may need adult assistance in organizing time and materials and developing skills, perhaps in techniques for closing out competing stimuli. But all of this must be accomplished in a framework of personal, individual satisfaction in the accomplishment of personal, individual goals. Otherwise what the child learns is conformity, not self-discipline.

If a child creates a disturbance, bothers others, does anything for which punishment is considered a deterrent, this is evidence that, at the very least, the adult's goals have no relevance to the child's feeling at the moment. It may indicate that the child bears resentments against controlling adults, or against other people in general. Punishment can only secure conformity to goals which are neither felt nor valued by the child. The order secured by punishment or threat of punishment may satisfy the adult, but it can only teach conformity to the child, and it will almost inevitably produce resentment. Such resentment may be one of the most common and important aspects of growing up in our culture.

To a greater or lesser degree, hating authority, yet depending on it for validation of ones actions, and wanting to escape this bondage by doing things disapproved by authority is a well nigh universal experience in growing up in our culture. The punished child tends to equate "right" with conformity. Some become expert conformers and are rewarded by being considered "good" children, but even for these the "wrong" is often secretly or subconsciously attractive.

This pattern becomes a blueprint for deviance where a substantial youth subculture has emerged. Here non-conformist acts have value and gain status among peers, providing within this group a conformist avenue for expressing the pent up resentments against adults. This may at first seem conflicting, but it is not.

Individuals learn to conform at the same time that they build up the resentments and the inner desire to do "wrong." It is as uncomfortable for them to be a non-conforming rebel as it is for them to be a non-conforming self-disciplined achiever, because they have never been allowed to experience self-direction in any significant way. When drug usage, shop-lifting, sexual activity, and other actions deplored by adults are also admired and are status builders among peers, these behaviors become almost irresistibly attractive to young people, and certain kinds of deviant, delinquent behavior becomes a norm for them.

This basic mind-set holds over into adult life for many people, even though the pressures and problems of adulthood cause most adults to conform to traditional standards of behavior. But how often the "right" is thought to be sober, dull and boring, even though necessary, while "wrong" or "sin" is equated with fun, pleasure, excitement, thrills. Alas, it is not so, and the confusion leads many into unsatisfying lives. Is this the reason that so many otherwise sensible people love to lose their inhibitions through the use of alcohol, to enable them to express those otherwise repressed desires to do "wrong?" But it is the "good" life that is consistently satisfying and fun. "Wrong" is destructive and ultimately painful, lonely and sad. the greatest fallacy of our culture is that sin is fun.

Punishment, unfortunately in my opinion, is a most important and universal concept in our culture. We tend to assume that it is a basic aspect of existence and that it is both inevitable and beneficial. We tend to view all behavior from the perspective of a dichotomy between right and wrong. Wrong or bad behavior must be punished and good behavior rewarded whether on the part of a child or an adult. Only in this way can balance be maintained and human existence seen as rational and meaningful.

Life begins to lose its meaning when we find the good people suffering while the bad people are able to "get away" with crimes ranging from theft and robbery to profiteering on government contracts and maintaining political power through terrorism and murder, appearing to prosper while doing so. We try hard to "make the punishment fit the crime" and to balance out pleasure and pain for all. And when a nice balance is impossible we tend to put the inequities out of our minds and go on pretending that good is rewarded and evil punished. We try to do this for our children in particular.

There is a major difference between punishment and consequences, even though both may produce pain and both may induce learning. A cut finger from a sharp knife or a burned tongue from hot tea are painful, and the pain is directly related to the behavior involving the object that caused it. In this case the learning is simply avoidance. One learns to be cautious with sharp knives and hot tea, for the consequences are obvious and direct.

Punishment is perceived quite differently, even though the punisher may try to make it appear to be a mechanistic consequence by prior statement of what will happen if the undesirable behavior is engaged in. But punishment is the intentional infliction of pain or discomfort upon another person in the hope of changing his or her behavior. It may or may not follow immediately after the undesirable behavior, but whether it does or not, and whether or not the connection is clearly seen by the person being punished, it always creates in the mind of the person being punished a resentment against the punisher. This resentment and anger may be at the level of awareness, or it may be deeply buried in the unconscious but it is always there.

Because of resentment and anger against the punisher, any learning as the result of punishment becomes entangled in a mass of conflicting emotions, many of which are completely unconscious. Persons recognizing that their actions were "bad" or "wrong" but who for some reason unknown to them did the wrong thing anyway, may well feel guilt about their wrong behavior. Since they already feel bad, the punishment seems unjust and creates stronger resentment and anger. But they may also feel that what they did was wrong and the punishment deserved, and therefore they also feel guilt about feeling angry. Much of this emotion may be too painful to bring to consciousness so that all the anger lies beneath the surface, complicating all the relationships between punisher and punished, as well as influencing the self-awareness and self-esteem of the one punished. This is particularly true in the case of a child who has been taught to "love, honor and respect" a punishing parent.

When one is being blamed for wrong-doing, as one always is when being punished, for punishment is always a personal relationship, it is the healthy response of one's primary defense system to come to the defense of one's self-esteem. So we find excuses for what we did, or find others to take the blame. In one way or another we manage to exonerate ourselves, and usually are able to place the blame for our discomfort on the punisher. This may well be true even if at the conscious level we feel justly punished.

But if parents and teachers must avoid punishment because of its ill effects, how can they maintain discipline? If the threat of punishment is entirely removed, will not the child "test the limits" to see what he can get away with, and will this not lead to domination of the entire family by the child, increasingly a "little monster" who terrorizes her parents into indulging her every whim? The answer may be "yes" if the parents have created resentments that cause the child to want to "get even", if they have modeled behavior that has led the child to imitate a self-centered insistence on being in control, if they have taught her (no doubt quite unconsciously) to value dominance over others, and that satisfaction comes from having one's whims gratified.

The secret of discipline without punishment is that of the native American chiefs. They had no authority based on any kind of force or coercion. They could not order or control by punishment because autonomy of the individual was a primary value in their culture. They led by example and by the moral force of wisdom and character. Because more than anyone else their lives illustrated the virtues everyone believed in, because they were kind, generous, gentle, sensitive, men of integrity and courage, they were followed. (The chiefs were always men, though they relied on the advice of their mothers, sisters and wives, for women were assumed to be more emotionally stable and to have better judgment than men.) People and especially children trusted and loved them, and had no desire at all to offend them by acting contrary to their advice.

Discipline stands in opposition to punishment because it is a positive force that operates in an atmosphere of love, respect and individual responsibility. Obedience carries overtones of the threat of punishment. We do not want obedient children, who may be docile and well-behaved in the presence of adult authority, but who may be willing to try to "get away" with something foolish as soon as they think they are not observed. We want responsible children who, to the limit of their ability to discern and understand, take responsibility for their own safety and welfare. We want them to have enough love and respect and sensitivity to us as parents that when a parent says "wait" or "stop" with a note of urgency they will want to wait or stop till they have learned what is causing that concern. This might superficially be seen as obedience but it is really a very different relationship. We want them to respect us enough to want to give serious consideration to our long range concerns for their welfare, often being willing to give up personal desires in order to please a parent, even though they may not fully understand the reasons.

Maintaining this kind of relationship with adolescents requires our recognition that it is a two way street. It is unlikely to happen for parents who have consistently overridden a child's feelings in order not to upset the parents' schedule. It is equally unlikely to happen for parents who do not have the time and patience to really listen to the adolescent's feelings about things. If you listen to 12 to 15 year olds, as I have, you quickly discover that their commonest complaint is, "Nobody ever listens to me."

If we would develop in our children the capacity for self-discipline, we must first of all provide for them adult models of responsibility and self-disciplined effort. Are we just conforming, or are we freely doing what we value most, and capable of the self-discipline to achieve it? Do we still secretly long to "break out of the mold" and do what we know is wrong, but which seems to offer the fun and excitement we feel we lack? What kind of ideal do we hold up to our children? They will not hear what we say if our lives and actions and deepest feelings do not match our words. Hypocrisy here is futile.

Our children know what we really are far better than we do. The place to begin improving our teaching or parenting skills is with ourselves. For some of us this may require some kind of therapy. But whatever it requires, it is necessary to understand and accept our feelings. If we understand ourselves it is not necessary to be perfect. We only have to be honestly striving to move toward that goal. When we fail we must apologize and go on. Our children will be able to understand and accept us as we are, and ultimately to understand and accept themselves.

Beyond the good example, to develop self-discipline a child must be given real freedom enough to experience self-discipline. This means the freedom to fail, to make his own mistakes and to learn from them. This does not mean forcing the child into actions and decisions it does not feel ready to undertake. Here the child is happy to have the parent or teacher take the responsibility. But it does mean giving opportunity to do adult things even if it is inconvenient for the parent or teacher. Only if a situation holds real danger should exploratory action be prohibited. I would not let a child use a chain saw, for it has hidden hazards the child cannot know. But if a child wants to use a knife after observing and hearing about its potential dangers, it should be allowed to do so while seated. The lessons in self-discipline and competence may far outweigh the pain of a minor cut on a finger. And if the child does cut a finger the parent or teacher should neither blame nor moralize for to do so takes away the freedom which is the core of self-discipline.

But how can one achieve genuine discipline and not mere obedience when one is a teacher in charge of a roomful of "other people's kids?" No doubt to hope for this at the outset is unrealistic, since most children in our culture are already more or less alienated from adults, and expect the adult-child relationship to be one of coercive control based on the threat of punishment. But if one keeps the ideal in mind, making whatever compromises are necessary along the way on a strictly individual case by case basis, it may be possible to move toward that goal.

It will probably be necessary when first confronting a classroom full of traditionally reared American children or teen-agers to follow somewhat traditional methods of control. But the teacher should try as soon as possible to develop rapport. By truly listening to them, by treating them with the same kind of respect that you would a room full of adults, you can begin to earn their trust. Some are easier to reach than others, but I found in my years as a junior high school counselor that nearly every student who came to me, or was sent because of misbehavior, eventually came to see me as a friend, and was willing not only the share personal fears and antagonisms, but to consider realistically my suggestions.

Sometimes the ones considered most incorrigible by teachers were easiest to reach. One teacher said to me one day after school, "Howard, I don't know what you do to these kids. They come back from your office changed persons." She never knew that all I did was to listen for 45 minutes to a tirade about how bad a teacher she was!

In the suburban school where I worked, we had a 7th grade English-social studies teacher who kept a classroom that always seemed chaotic. Kids were busy everywhere and the noise of conversation was high. Across the hall another 7th grade English-social studies teacher kept a classroom that was quiet and orderly, every seat in rows, every child busy doing his own work. From neither of these classes did I ever have a student come to me to complain about teacher or class. I came to realize that the reason was that both teachers really loved kids, and more importantly, respected them. They showed their love in very different ways, but the children recognized it.

All children are different and must be dealt with individually. And every parent and teacher is different and must work out his/her own way of dealing with children. I have even seen some adults who appear to be able to make punishment work, though I suspect that it is always destructive in the long run. The one thing I believe is always necessary is love, and the first evidence of love is respect.

The above chapter, reprinted with the permission of the author, was excerpted from "Ways With Children". For more information about this book, contact the author at PO Box 604, Bellingham, WA 98227

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