Misusing terminology is not simply a matter of semantics. A person who confuses the meaning of words is likely to behave accordingly.

That occurred to me during a conversation with a parent who was using the word “discipline” as if it was a synonym for “punishment.” When I pointed that out, he said, somewhat defensively, “What’s the difference?”

“We’re talking here about a problem you’re experiencing with one of your children. It’s a problem of discipline, not a problem of punishment.”

“Sorry, but I don’t understand,” he said, still a bit prickly.

“You seem to think that the problem in question requires punishment. I, on the other hand, believe it requires discipline. Discipline is instruction. Punishment is a disciplinary option, but it is not necessarily instructive. That depends on how it’s delivered.”

I can only hope that what I told him “stuck.” Too many parents make the mistake of thinking that discipline and punishment are one and the same. The root word of discipline is “disciple.” A child disciple looks up to the parent (respect), follows the parent’s lead (obedience) and subscribes to the parent’s values (loyalty). That set of characteristics is brought about by being a proper role model and providing proper instruction. Correction is one aspect of the process, and punishment is sometimes the best corrective, but when punishment is not delivered with a correct attitude on the part of the parent, it can be counterproductive. It can make matters worse.

The right attitude is one of calm intolerance. The child should know, without doubt, that the parent is strongly disapproving of the misbehavior in question, but it is vital that the parent not be in the grip of anger. When anger dominates a parent’s attempts at correction, it is likely to be nothing more than retaliatory, as in, “I’ll show you!” That accomplishes little if anything. Furthermore, most parents have difficulty following through with consequences described in anger. They tend toward overkill. How does one enforce, “No more Christmases for you, ever!”?

The proper attitude is translated, “I don’t like punishing you, but what you have done demands it.” The sorts of things that call for punishment include belligerent disrespect, blatant disobedience, lies that are harmful to someone else, theft and unjustifiable aggression.

Proper punishment makes an impression on a child, one that imparts a permanent memory, which is why, by the way, a few minutes in timeout is so generally worthless, especially for children who have outgrown toddlerhood. Big misbehavior demands a big response, but the way to prevent ever having to enforce a big response is to nip misbehavior in the bud. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The bottom line: The more you instruct, the less you will have to punish, and the less you punish, the better for all concerned.

Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at questions@rosemond.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.

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