Punishment or Discipline

Parenting Skills

A 20‒30 minute activity to clarify, define, and foster understanding of the terms discipline and punishment and help fathers understand the meaning of abuse.From The Responsible Fatherhood Curriculum: A Curriculum Developed for the Parents' Fair Share Demonstration


To clarify, define, and understand the terms discipline and punishment. To help fathers understand the meaning of abuse.


  • Discipline, Punishment, and Abuse Handout
  • Newsprint
  • Marker

Planning Note

  • Draw a line to divide a sheet of newsprint into two columns, and label them “Punishment” and “Discipline.”
  • Post the newsprint, and prepare a list of two or three situations that the fathers have shared in which they had to manage their children’s behavior (or use the examples given below).


  1. Explain to the participants that this activity will examine two different philosophies of managing children’s behavior: punishment and discipline.
  2. Ask the men to explain how punishment and discipline are different. Say something like, “When you think of the word punishment, what words or actions come to mind?” (Responses are likely to include hitting, yelling, taking away privileges, grounding the child, etc.)
  3. Now ask them to think of the word discipline and again ask what words or actions come to mind. (Examples may include teaching, praising, correcting negative or wrong behavior, reinforcing good behavior, etc.)
  4. Finally, ask them to think about whether their examples consist of discipline or punishment, or whether they are something else (such as abuse: inflicting pain or injury on a child, putting a child down, making a child feel bad about himself or herself, etc.).
  5. In your own words, explain that discipline teaches children how to act; discipline should make sense to children, and should have something to do with what they have done wrong. Discipline helps children to feel good about themselves. It gives them a chance to correct their mistakes, and it puts them in control of their actions.
    • The word discipline and the word disciple both come from the same Latin word meaning “pupil”; in this context, then, discipline means following the guidance of someone who “teaches.”
    • In contrast, punishment tells children only that they have been bad; it does not tell them what to do instead. Punishment often doesn’t make sense to children, because it usually doesn’t have anything to do with what the children have done wrong.
    • Abuse hurts a child physically and emotionally; it encourages children to grow up feeling bad about themselves and others.
  6. Based on this discussion and the Leader Resource “Discipline, Punishment, and Abuse,” add to the newsprint list of characteristics of discipline and punishment. Explain that you are going to give the group two or three examples of situations that parents face with their children.
  7. Then present situation 1 (below), and ask, “How might a father punish Michelle in this situation? How might he discipline or teach her?” Record the fathers’ ideas about punishment and discipline in this case, and add ideas from the suggested responses below.
  • SITUATION 1. Your three-year-old-daughter, Michelle, wants to be with you while you are cooking dinner, but she keeps running toward the stove. How do you handle the situation?
    • Punishment: Yell at Michelle, and drag her out of the kitchen.
    • Discipline: Tell Michelle firmly that, if she wants to stay with you in the kitchen, she must not go near the stove, because it is hot and she could hurt herself. If she continues to play near the stove, lead her by the hand to another room. Tell her she can come back to the kitchen and try again in five minutes.
  1. Continue the discussion by asking the following questions:
    • What results would the punishment response have? (Michelle may stay out of the kitchen out of fear, but she will not understand why it is dangerous to go near the stove.)
    • What results would the discipline response have? (Michelle would learn that the stove is hot and can hurt her.)
    • How much control should parents expect a three-year-old to have? (For example, can a three-year-old remember every time to stay away from the stove?)
  2. Make the point that three-year-olds are little children who are just learning the rules and the way that the world works. They cannot be trusted to keep themselves safe, because they are still “me-focused” (that is, they think that the world revolves around them and that they can have or do whatever they want). They need constant supervision. This is normal for this stage of development, which should be kept in mind when a parent disciplines a three-year-old. Remind the fathers to think about the age of the child when they consider the other examples you will discuss.
  3. Then present the other examples (either from the fathers’ list or from below). Use the same discussion format, and record any relevant points on the newsprint list of punishment and discipline.
  • SITUATION 2. Your two-year-old son, Sam, writes on the wall with a crayon.
    • Punishment: Tell Sam that he is a bad boy and slap his hands.
    • Discipline: Take the crayons away (until the next day) and tell Sam that crayons are used in coloring books or on paper, not on walls. Explain that crayon marks make the walls dirty.
  • SITUATION 3. Your six-year-old daughter Maria hits her four-year-old sister with a bat.
    • Punishment: Yank the bat away from Maria and send her to her room.
    • Discipline: Take the bat away and tell Maria that hitting is not OK and that she has to use words to tell her sister why she is angry. Ask Maria to apologize and tell her that she will have to go to her room if she hits her sister again.
  1. End the activity by asking the discussion questions.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of punishment? (Advantages: Punishment is easy and fast; it keeps the adult in control; and it usually produces quick results. Disadvantages: Punishment teaches children the importance of power, and it shows that violence is a good way to resolve conflict; it has the potential to turn into abuse; and it does not teach children why their behavior is wrong or how to correct it.)
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of discipline? (Advantages: Discipline teaches and gives responsibility to the children; it is more humane than punishment; it teaches lessons about the consequences of actions, by saying, “When you do this . . . such and such will happen”; it helps children to feel good about themselves when they please others as well as themselves; and it helps children know what is expected of them so that they can feel safe. Disadvantages: Discipline takes more initial effort, time, patience, and creativity.)
  • When does punishment become abuse? (Examples: When children are pushed, kicked, choked, hit, punched, locked out of the house, abandoned in dangerous places, left home alone at young ages, or threatened or hurt with a weapon. Also talk about emotional abuse, as when parents or caregivers refuse or neglect to give children consistent love, attention, and protection; or when parents ignore, belittle, or insult children. Emphasize that abuse is unacceptable behavior for parents.)
  • Based on the way you were raised, do you think that your parents responded to your behavior in ways that helped you learn right from wrong? Why or why not? What kinds of messages did you get about yourself from the way your parents responded to your behavior? (Did you feel good or bad about yourself? Did you believe that your parents loved you? Did you fear or respect them?)
  • Now that you have considered the differences among discipline, punishment, and abuse, which method do you think is most effective in getting children to be well behaved? Why?
  • If you were to use discipline instead of hitting to handle your children’s behavior, what reactions would you expect from them? What reactions would you expect from their mothers or grandparents?
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