A long time ago, in a land far away, I was the principal of a small elementary school. One of my first disciplinary problems was with a 12-year-old boy who was riding his bike aggressively on the playground and sidewalks after school, which was against the rules. He continued to disobey the orders of a teacher to stop, and he was sent to my office. I called his mother and told her that he would be punished for directly disobeying the rules and the authorities. I felt confident that I was doing the right thing, but this mother flipped out. She agreed with me that he was wrong and deserved a negative consequence, but she could not believe that I was using the word punishment. She lectured me for ten minutes about why punishment is not appropriate with children and how we should be disciplining children in love, and that if I didn’t know the difference between the two then I had no business leading a school.
I was stunned by her outrage. I was amazed that she could be so passionate about what seemed like a very minor difference in word meaning. It’s not like I was going to beat the child at the whipping post or anything. What was the big deal?
Well, now that I have 13 more years in education, I see that she was right. There is a huge difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment is all about behavior change. It works on the outward behavior first and foremost. The hope is that enough punishment for bad behavior will force the child into a pattern of good behavior.
Punishment can be delivered without any love at all. In fact, it’s meant to be rational, impartial, and free of emotion. Take the criminal court system as an example. The judges, jurors, and jailers don’t make the laws (legislators do that). They don’t enforce the laws (policemen do that). They punish lawbreakers who have been caught by the law enforcers. The goal of the justice system is to objectively apply a punishment to fit the crime. It’s about destroying the will to do that negative behavior again.
The best parents, teachers, and coaches understand the difference between punishment and discipline. They know that punishment is not what is best for the children in their care. They choose to build relationships with their kids, rather than merely mete out punishments for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior. Instead they learn how to discipline effectively, with a personal touch.
Danny Silk’s book, Loving Our Kids on Purpose says, “Discipline works from the inside out, while punishment tries to work from the outside in. The parent who is bringing learning to a child is not going to try to control the child, but is skillfully going to invite the child to own and solve his or her own problems.” (160)
Discipline is always an act of love. It is never a reaction in anger. Instead, it is training. It is teaching. But it is not primarily about control. Discipline is about caring enough to explain why certain behavior is immoral, how it affects others, and why a change is good for everyone. It’s about building up the child with love and truth. It may take a very serious and firm tone of voice and body language, but it’s about construction (not destruction).
Discipline deals with the heart. For example, a father whose son is lying about stealing money from his sister has some choices about how to deal with such bad behavior. Option A: He flashes his anger to scare the child, and deals out a punishment that fits the crime. Done and done. Option B: He sees the problem as a teaching moment and carefully considers how to train the child to want to do what is right. This option is much more difficult and takes a great deal of thought, practice, and love. It is often messy and time-consuming, but it produces love, joy, and peace in the long run.
“Angry, fearful reactions to people’s mistakes reveal that somewhere in our minds still lurks the fundamental belief that people can be controlled, and that they need to be controlled with punishment.” (81)
The gospel explains (specifically in Luke 10:27) that the greatest commandment is love, and love is a much higher priority than following the rules. “Jesus promoted relationship above rules.” (35) Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.
“When love and freedom replace punishment and fear as the motivating forces in the relationship between parent and child, the quality of life improves dramatically for all involved. They feel safe with each other, and the anxiety that created distance in the relationships is chased away by the sense of love, honor, and value for one another.” (43)
Discipline is effective when the rules are explained, enforced, and reinforced – all while maintaining the love that yields a close relationship.