Is it punishment, or Discipline?

Published: April 2, 2019

Author: Rene Elsbury; MSW, LSW

Home Based Therapist


When I hear the word punishment, I think about being a little girl and having to clean my room on a sunny day and how I felt like my parents hated me because they didn’t let me play with my friends. I also remember the arguments about curfews in high school and feeling like it was so unfair when I had friends that didn’t have to be home as early as I did. I don’t think about the spankings I received as they were far and between and didn’t last but a few seconds, or getting my mouth washed out with soap for calling my Dad a bad word. Maybe because I felt I deserved those more because I knew what I was doing was wrong when I did it. Or, maybe its because it didn’t stick.

As a parent, my perspective is a little different. Those horrible punishments of the moment when I was a child were just discipline. My parents were setting boundaries to teach me lessons of responsibility and accountability and to keep me safe. I do the same thing with my children; my approach is just different. I’m still disciplining my children by setting boundaries. I want my children safe from the harm I know, and the harm I can imagine. I want my children to learn to be responsible adults and have life skills that they will need to function in our society. I want the same things my parents wanted for me, only now I understand it more than I ever could as a child. So, I set curfews and have clear rules about internet use and phone use. My children have chores that they are expected to complete each week that are age appropriate and change as they get older. When they don’t do their chores, they have privileges removed. I’m sure they feel like I’m a mean mom and that I’m punishing them, but really I’m just using the discipline methods that I know are effective.

Why am I not spanking, smacking, yelling, locking bedroom doors, and using soap? Well, it's not because I’m a therapist - I was a parent for many years before I became a therapist. Although becoming a therapist has made me truly understand why punishment is not an effective form of discipline. No, I don’t punish my children because it isn’t the punishments I received as a child that taught me the life lessons that my parents were trying to teach me. It was the discipline. It was the structure of bedtimes, meal times, homework, and playtime. It was the organization of knowing what to expect day in and day out. It was having privileges like playing with friends, popsicles in the freezer, my favorite tv show and the removal of those when I didn’t follow the rules of picking up after myself, or got a smart mouth, or got in trouble at school. It was the safety measures of curfews, having to talk to parents of friends I wanted to play with, and having to wear a helmet on bike rides. It was having the rules spelled out for me and not just made up on the spot. It was the answers to the why questions when I didn’t understand the rule. Those are what taught me the lessons that I needed to get to where I am today.

I hope that one day my children will look back and remember that I loved them.  I hope they know that I wanted to keep them safe and learn how to succeed in life by teaching them what they would need for their future. I’m grateful I learned those hard life lessons with love, and support and could prove that I could be trusted to make good choices.  Hopefully, my children will learn that, too. At the end of the day, I want what all parents want- I want my children healthy, happy, and safe.