Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Punishment versus Discipline

Today is Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

Those of you who know me, know that I have no children of my own, but as a retired teacher, I have spent plenty of time with kids of all ages, and have had a lot of experience with administering discipline.  I have also spoken to a lot of parents, and I have often wished that more parents were better at disciplining their kids.  It's a hard thing to do, and I hate having to do it myself, so I sympathize, but the consequence of failure to instill discipline in a child can be catastrophic.

Punishment is not the same as discipline, although the two words are often used interchangeably.  Both words have a Latin origin, but the word discipline comes from a root word meaning "to teach," while punishment comes from a root that means "to inflict pain." 

Discipline is being able to obey rules or regulate our words and actions according to a specific code of behavior. We can exercise self discipline, which means to regulate our own behavior, or we can discipline someone, which means we train them to obey the rules or regulate their words and actions according to a specific code of behavior. Part of the training is positive role-modeling. Another part is practicing the "right way" to do things.  Part is reminding the person undergoing training of the limits and making sure that there are consequences for violating the rules or code of behavior.  There is no intent to inflict harm or shame the person undergoing the training.  The intent is to make the person aware of the code of behavior and the consequences for violations, and ultimately, to ensure that the person will be able to exercise self-discipline in the future.

We discipline children because we know that they cannot yet discipline themselves.   We set rules and limits for them that we hope will ensure their safety and wellbeing.  In schools, we set rules not only for safety, but also to ensure a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. (This does not, by the way, mean that kids are to sit in rows all day without speaking.)  

Punishment, on the other hand,  is the "infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense."  The penalty may involve rough treatment possibly leading to bodily harm, or emotional abuse, such as ridicule, shaming, or shunning.  Notice all the negative words in this definition.  Notice that the focus is on violations and the intent is to inflict physical or emotional pain on a person.  There is no particular intent to achieve self-discipline on the part of the person being punished.  In fact, there is an underlying notion that the person cannot or will not ever learn to discipline him- or herself.

When we discipline children, teenagers, or adults who are under our authority, the focus should be on setting a good example, setting reasonable consequences for noncompliance, exercising patience with first-time offenders, recognizing that failure to obey rules may indicate a lack of understanding rather than intent to do wrong, and, if possible, allowing an offender to make restitution or re-do an unacceptable piece of work.  

When discipline is done in anger, it becomes a punishment.  If we truly mean to set an example for those under our authority, we must manage our own emotions.  That means discipline is best done when tempers have cooled.  If we err and inflict punishment, rather than administer discipline, it is good practice to admit this. Rather than making us look weak, it gives the impression that we are aware of the need to control emotions and we are willing to walk our talk.  This is a great way to role model, especially for kids.  It's hard to admit when we are wrong, but if we can't do it, how can we expect our kids or our subordinates at work to do the same? 

Setting reasonable consequences can be difficult when our kids do something that makes us mad.  Once again, there is a need to avoid overreacting in anger and setting overly harsh punishments.  Teachers know that if  make a student stay after school, they have to stay after school, too.  If they make a student do extra work, they have to correct it, which means extra work for the teacher.  Parents sometimes forget – and some don't seem to understand – that the person who doles out the discipline may have to make a few sacrifices in order to ensure that the disciplinary action works.  If you have ordered that the child not watch TV, you may have to avoid watching TV yourself.  If you have grounded your child, someone will have to stay at home to keep the child company.  If you have taken away your teenager's car keys for two weeks, expect to do a lot of chauffering for the duration.

Every disciplinary action should involve talking to the offender in a calm setting – after tempers have cooled – to ensure that the person being disciplined understands the rule and why it is in force, and exactly what was done wrong. 

The offender should be given a chance to explain his or her intentions without being blamed, ridiculed or shamed.  This is a good time to figure out whether the offender is truly remorseful, and the fact is that most people are.  The offender should be allowed to choose an appropriate way to make restitution, apologize, or do a job over again, if possible.  The offender – especially a child – should understand how to behave next time a similar situation comes up. Kids, especially, need strategies in place to do better next time.  Kids who get into a fight on the playground, for example, don't generally have very good conflict avoidance or negotiating skills, so these have to be modeled, taught and practiced.

If it is a first offense, it is better to tell the offender you know he or she can do better next time, and make clear what consequences will ensue if there is another offense.  If the misbehavior is a repeated offense, it's important to figure out whether the person needs additional help in managing emotions or in managing challenging situations.

When dealing with an offense, the focus should be on the action itself and why it leads or will lead to an undesirable consequence.  The underlying assumption is that it's the action that is undesirable, not the person who committed the action.  Another assumption, until proven otherwise, is that the offender is capable of distinguishing right from wrong and that he or she did not necessarily intend to break the rules.  This is another reason why the best discipline is done when the person doing the discipline is calm and focused, and not reacting in the heat of anger.

With kids, teachers know that much of their misbehavior is due to emotional immaturity, and that you can't legislate emotions or force kids into maturity.  There is a recognition that when they finally do begin to mature, emotionally, their behavior will improve naturally. With adults, it's harder to see this, but there are, in fact, many people who are physically mature but emotionally quite immature, and their immaturity is most often what gets them into trouble.  Emotional immaturity on the part of adults can take the form of chronic lateness for work, sloppy performance, improper behavior with members of the opposite sex, cutting corners with safety rules, or other risky business behaviors such as overspending, overinvesting, etc. 

Emotionally immature people who disobey the rules often don't seem to understand the point of the rules.  They may not care about group safety or about the welfare of anyone else in the group.  Basically they need to be made to understand that until and unless they are willing to exercise self-discipline, the enforcer will be there to see that they behave according to the rules. 

When we punish instead of discipline people, the consequence is often much more severe than the infraction. Especially when emotionally abusive techniques such as shaming are used, the offender gets the message that it's not necessarily his or her actions that resulted in the punishment, but rather that the offender is a "bad" person.  As well, we have to remember that, when we work with rule-breakers, for the most part, we are working with people who are emotionally immature. It is hard enough for a mature individual to withstand emotional pain, let alone physical pain.  It's even harder, or impossible, for an emotionally immature person to do so.  When emotionally immature people feel wronged, what do they do first?  They lash out and become more aggressive.  They may carry a grudge against the person who punished them, and they very often engage in further rule-braking behavior to get revenge. Harsh punishment only creates resentment, instead of regret for the thing that was done wrong.  This is why punishment backfires.

Tomorrow I will write about the use of "time out" and "grounding" as ways to discipline young children and teens.  :-)

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