Discipline – what is it?

The word ‘discipline’ is a very confusing one. In many cases, particularly amongst parents, it seems to be synonymous with the word ‘punishment’. Yet the two are not the same.

What does discipline involve?

The word ‘discipline’ comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘disciple’. It relates to teaching, or training someone. We also sometimes use it formally, to describe a particular course of learning: often one that requires rigorous research and study. Discipline is at heart a positive noun, which unfortunately has been turned into a verb with some rather negative connotations. Unsurprisingly, many people are confused by this.

How is punishment different from discipline?

Punishment is more clear-cut. It involves retribution of some kind, or the payment of a debt. An adult might be put in jail or fined as punishment for breaking the law.  When the criminal is a danger to society in some way, it makes sense to keep him locked up.  It might not teach him anything constructive, or change his tendencies, but it keeps other people safe in the future.

Sometimes society’s punishments have nothing to do with the original offence; it’s rare that short-term jail sentences teach anything constructive. Many ex-convicts repeat their offences time and again; others, such as tax defaulters or those who have committed – and regretted – one serious mistake may spend years locked away at the taxpayer’s expense, where financial or other recompense would have been far more appropriate.

However whether or not it ‘suits the crime’ or has an effect long-term, the threat of punishment in society is supposed to serve as a deterrent to some who might otherwise commit crimes. Whether it is effective in doing so is not within the scope of this article.

Is punishment relevant for parenting?

The more I read and observe, the more I believe that punishment has no place at all within the home.

In other words, I do not believe that parents should inflict traditional punishments such as spanking, time-outs, groundings, or loss of privileges on their children or teenagers. Nor should they yell, or belittle their children, or treat them with disrespect in any way. The primary role of parents is to offer unconditional love, and any discipline (teaching) must be within that context.

This is why it is so important to distinguish punishment from discipline. Clearly, parents have the responsibility to teach their children morals, ethics, cultural expectations, and so on. A child has to learn not to help himself to items from a shop without paying, not to kick and scream when angry, not to take off her clothes in church. There are many ways of teaching children, or, rather, helping them to learn, which do not involve punishment.

Loving discipline

The primary emotional need of babies and toddlers is to know that they are loved. ‘Attachment parenting’ is the US-style name given to a lifestyle that keeps a newborn baby attached, as far as possible, to his mother for at least the first six months of life. It generally includes breastfeeding on demand, ‘wearing’ the baby in a sling, co-sleeping or at least having the baby right next to the parents’ bed at night.  This way, the baby’s needs are met almost instantly, and he will emerge from the newborn stage into – usually – a happy and co-operative alert baby.

Rigid training methods such as ‘crying it out’ or controlled four-hourly feedings do nothing to help the baby; they are for the parents’ sake alone. Sometimes parents are so exhausted with a cranky, perhaps colicky baby that they need a break, or to try something different, and all parents need to do what they believe best, following their instincts. Sometimes a baby needs to fuss for a few minutes before falling asleep. Sometimes breastfeeding is not possible. But as far as they are able, parents should watch and listen to their baby in those early months and meet his or her needs as soon as they are able to.

Discipline is not relevant at this stage. A newborn baby cannot be ‘spoiled’ by attention, demand feeding, or cuddles.  A baby cries to express a need, whether for food, change of clothing, comfort or the nearness of his mother. The more quickly these needs are met, the more secure the baby will feel, and the more able to communicate his needs in other ways as he grows older, and learns to use gestures and simple words.

As soon as a baby starts to crawl, life becomes decidedly more complicated. Wise parents will remove breakable objects and expensive books from low shelves, and provide plenty of toys for distraction. When a crawling baby tries to open a cupboard, he is simply exploring; he has no way of understanding that some cupboards should not be touched, or that some items are breakable – at least, not until he experiences a glass fragmenting into thousands of pieces!

If possible, allow your child to have access to at least one low cupboard in your living area and kitchen, full of plastic containers or even toys, where he can go to play any time. Child-proof locks may hold cupboards with breakable items – or, indeed, they may be stored out of reach of a small child. But in friends’ homes or where there is no easy way to keep a child out, simply stay alert; when the child is close to opening an inappropriate cupboard, pick him, up, say, ‘I’m afraid you can’t go in here,’ gently, and distract him with something else. You may need to repeat this many times – but for most babies, out of sight is out of mind.

In summary: first be aware of what your baby is trying to communicate or do. If possible, meet his needs, and also understand his desires. If his desires do not coincide with yours, and may put him (or something else) into danger, then stay calm, remove him gently, and distract him with something else.


Further reading:

Understanding temperament
Learning styles

Is your child a TV addict?
Are all teenagers horrible?
Parenting theories

Jealous of the new baby