The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

By Amanda Morin
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Are discipline and punishment the same thing? People often use the terms interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two. 

Discipline is a way to teach kids to follow rules or correct misbehavior. There is negative discipline and positive discipline. 

Punishment is a form of negative discipline. It’s often used to get rid of or end a behavior. Positive discipline, which is sometimes known as corrective consequences or positive guidance, works just as quickly. And it can be more effective than punishment.

When kids push your buttons or disobey rules, you may be quick to give them a consequence that’s going to make them unhappy enough to stop what they’re doing. It’s a common response when you feel frustrated, angry, or just plain fed up. But it’s not likely to change kids’ behavior in the long term.

Consider this scenario: Sandra and Javier have been arguing over colored pencils all afternoon. One of them pushes the other, and they both start arguing. You might say, “Both of you, stop it! You’re not allowed to go outside today!”

That’s punishment. It may stop the behavior in the moment, but it’s not going to teach Sandra and Javier the skills they need to make a better decision next time they argue.

When you use positive discipline, you might say, “Give me the colored pencils. Neither of you can use them right now. Sandra, take a deep breath. Now use the ‘I statements’ we practiced yesterday to tell Javier why you’re upset.” You might still feel annoyed and frustrated. But you’ll know that you’re preparing for a better outcome next time.

Positive discipline discourages the behavior. But it also teaches kids expectations and accountability. It helps kids see there’s a connection between what they do and what happens next—the natural and logical consequences.

Learn more about punishment versus discipline.

Negative Discipline/Punishment Positive Discipline/Corrective Consequence
Type of approach

Reactive: Handles the situation in the moment.

Proactive: Handles the situation in the moment and teaches skills for the future.

What it is

A penalty for doing something wrong. It tries to change kids’ future behavior by making them “pay for their mistakes.”

A logical or natural consequence for wrongdoing. It aims to change future behavior by helping kids learn from their mistakes.

Focus

Puts you in control of kids’ behavior and for deciding the outcome of their decisions.

Puts kids in control of their behavior and decisions by teaching new skills, such as self-control and self-regulation.

The viewpoint
  • Assumes that behavior is only about doing something “bad” or “wrong.”
  • Provides little help figuring out how to behave differently in the future.
What it looks like

Consequences that aren’t directly tied to what happened, such as taking away privileges or possessions, asking kids to do an unpleasant task, adding more responsibilities or work and, in some homes, corporal punishment.

(Research shows that corporal punishment can increase aggression and other negative behavior.)

  • Consequences that meet the “three R’s”: reasonable, related to the problem, and resulting from the behavior or action.
  • Natural consequences are the unavoidable and inevitable result of an action.
  • Logical consequences are also related to the action. But they’re given out when you intervene because the action could result in someone getting hurt or harmed.
Examples of types of consequences

Negative consequences:

  • Sandra was chatting with her friend during silent reading time, so the teacher assigns her extra math homework.
  • Javier skateboarded in the road after he was told not to. Now he has to do his brother’s chores for a week in addition to his own.

Natural consequences:

  • Sandra was chatting with her friend during silent reading time, so now she’s behind in her book. She ends up missing her favorite TV show at home because she has to read for longer than usual.

Logical consequences:

  • Javier skateboarded in the road after he was told not to. You point out that since he made the choice to not follow the rules, he isn’t allowed to use his skateboard for the rest of the day.
What kids learn from this

The message is: “You need to stop doing that; it’s wrong.” Kids learn:

  • They can’t learn to control their own actions.
  • Their behavior needs to be managed by you.
  • Being careful not to get caught is more important than changing what they’re doing.

The message is: “Here’s what you can or should do instead.” Kids learn:

  • They control their own actions.
  • They can manage their own behavior through self-control.
  • They need to make changes to their behavior if they want to avoid dealing with the consequences.
Results

You may not always approach behavior as well as you’d like to, especially in stressful moments. But you can always make changes, both at home and in school. Read one family’s story of how they got back on track after years of mismanaging meltdowns. Explore a guide to understanding behavior as an important form of communication. And explore the interactive Parenting Coach tool for practical ideas about handling behavioral challenges.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Kristin J. Carothers, PhD 

is a clinical child psychologist devoted to the destigmatization of mental health problems.

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