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Ways to Discipline a Child – Clarifying the Differences Between Punishment, Permissiveness and Discipline

Discipline is often thought of as something we do to a child when they do something that we do not want them to do. In this sense, punishment and discipline can become confused and the opportunity present in discipline is lost or misguided.

The root of the word discipline is disciple. Disciple refers to someone who is a student or follower, one who is essentially being taught by someone who is wise. Discipline is the art of teaching with wisdom. One function and role of a parent is to teach. We are always teaching children through example about what it is to be human, whether considered wise or unwise.

In moments when a parent feels the child has done something inappropriate, something that deems correction or guidance, the art of discipline is what determines the outcome for both the parent and child. Parents can feel various ways when a child does something they would prefer the child not do. Some parents feel clear about discipline in such occurrences. Some parents feel doubt, frustration, anger and sadness about how to properly teach the child to live amongst society’s expectations while honoring the child’s need to be a unique and innovative contributor to the same society.

There are only a few ways that a parent or caregiver can respond to a child in moments of question or in need of discipline. These methods first take place within the mind of the parent and lead to the actual interaction between parent and child. To help clarify the differences between various approaches, they are outlined here in the three common categories of punishment, permissiveness, and discipline. Punishment and permissiveness can have similar underlying qualities of dis-empowerment for the child and parent, but permissiveness can also be a bridge from punishment to discipline at times when a parent is learning new techniques for teaching.


Seeks to impose a negative experience in the child in response to something a child has done so the child feels bad and will not repeat the action or to make the child pay for their actions, in spiritual terms believes a child has a sinful or otherwise harmful nature that must be taught out, primary experience is parental power/authority over child.

  • Tell the child no, to stop engaging in the action, moving to shame, anger or punishment to stop the action if necessary.
  • Verbally shame the child, make him wrong for the action through verbal or non-verbal communication, words, ideas.
  • React in anger, blame and punish the child for the parent’s experience of anger, embarrassment, etc. in relation to the behavior.
  • Punish the child through withdraw of love, remove child from the situation and put child in a place without access to a loving parent/caregiver.
  • Punish the child through false abandonment, pretend to or actually leave the child.
  • Punish the child through physical means, switching, spanking, slapping, hitting or otherwise inflicting pain on/harming the body of the child.
  • Punish the child through other means with the intention of making the child feel bad for what she has done.
  • Force the child to apologize and/or do something else before she is permitted to interact with others, receive love.
  • Threaten the child in some way if the child does not obey.


Seeks to allow the child to be autonomous and free of punishment, but may lack conscious teaching, often a mutual parent-child search and exploration of inner and outer power/strength/value/worth.

  • Withdraw emotionally from the child, numb out, while not providing guidance for desired/appropriate behavior.
  • Ignore the behavior and the child, hope or trust that the behavior will go away without attention.
  • Allow the child to continue the behavior/not provide guidance while knowing it is socially unaccepted, potentially harmful to another in any form or dis-empowering for the child to not be aware of its social impact.
  • Explain away the behavior based on a child’s development, personality, what he had to eat or not eat that day, other characteristics of the situation and the child, without providing guidance to the child. (The explanation may be pertinent but does not negate the need for guidance in the particular situation).
  • Blame another for the way the child is without providing guidance to the child.
  • Refrain from teaching the child anything when inside the parent there is a gnawing sense that the child could benefit from some loving guidance.


Seeks to clearly and respectfully guide the child with love and create a space for the child to become self-aware and self-teaching, primary experience is power/strength/value/worth with the child, in spiritual terms believes a child’s inherent nature of goodness, being a child of Creation, simply needs nurturing.

  • Accept the behavior is occurring/has occurred, love the child first from the heart and guide towards an appropriate behavior.
  • Trust the child truly wants to get along and cooperate even when behavior speaks otherwise.
  • Notice the behavior that requires a response, this varies from parent to parent and situation to situation and changes over time. Focus on the opposite of the undesired behavior – the behavior that is wanted and communicate that to the child. Alex is hitting his sister. Mom’s response, demonstrating what she is saying in her body language, “Alex, people not for hurting. Please be gentle with your sister.”
  • Ask the child to choose differently, with a specific choice or two highlighted. “Sara, telling me to give you the cookie right now feels/is demanding. I like to be asked. Can you please ask in another way/try a different approach?”
  • Model the behavior wanted in and out of the situation. The child pulls the dogs hair and the parent gently strokes the dog while placing a hand over the child’s hand to guide the child in stroking the dog also. “Opal likes to be pet gently.”
  • Acknowledge that some children (and parents) need space when intense emotions such as frustration, anger or sadness arise. They also need unconditional love and acceptance available. Remove a child gently from the situation and stay in a safe space with the child while feeling whatever comes up for the parent while not taking action from anger, cry if necessary.
  • Tune into what example you are setting as a parent in the moment. Adjust accordingly if you want to set a different example.
  • See the child as a mirror. What could your child be reflecting emotionally for you? As you work on healing emotional upset within you through deep breathing and acknowledgment the guidance you need to provide to your child becomes more clear.
  • From a place of neutral observation ask your child how he feels about what he has done. Ask if he feels sorry, what choice he may make next time or if he has any ideas for how to work the situation out. Kids are brilliant and often respond well to being asked in this way when emotions are through being intense.
  • Encourage the child to trust him/herself, to check inside for the answer to a situation, to make choices/decisions and learn from the results.
  • Encourage the child to observe how he feels and how others feel in response to her actions. Encourage a balance of integrity and dignity with self and others.
  • Guide child in recognizing problems and brain storming solutions – alone and with others to develop self-reliance, problem solving skills and resilience.
  • Model and share how to meet emotions responsibly through emotion coaching.
  • Trust children are always learning and each behavior “mishap” is simply a perfect opportunity for parent and child to learn together.
  • Recognize that repetition is part of the process.

Each parent must define a sense of discipline. The decision must factor in whether or not the short and long-term results of a particular discipline method determine how a parent will teach. While punishment may create a short-term result of obedience, it stems from a fear based relationship with the parent that has been shown in research to promote aggressiveness and long-term harm in ways that cannot always be detected initially. Discipline may take longer with more repetition and stems from a trust based relationship with the parent that leads to long term self-awareness and confidence. Teaching methods vary from parent to parent based on several factors including personality, past experience, awareness of choices. The basis for teaching does create results in the lives of everyone involved and can benefit from being thoughtfully considered.

Discipline honors the innate worth of everyone involved. Teaching with wisdom releases old held patterns of shaming, harm and other negative outcomes while focusing on behavior that is appropriate and allowing the child to be the unique being she is here to be. Children who are guided in this way have the potential to greatly impact society in a positive manner.

Children are continually calling parents forward to the deep truths of life. Parents have the opportunity in each new moment to examine the ways of thinking and behavior that co-create the experiences they have with their children and choose differently when necessary. Embracing discipline not as a tool of control, but instead as an opportunity to strengthen our relationships allows us and our children to blossom and spread love beyond expectations throughout the world.

Updated 1/2016.

Are you struggling as a parent? If so, I’d like to share something with you: a story and some hope.