Parenting Education · Family Coach

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Discipline and Punishment, is there a Difference?

My husband and I try and maintain a household with discipline, but not punishment.  I say try, because sometimes we fall into the punishment cycle, but mostly, I mean mostly, we try and aim for discipline.  What do I mean?  Is there a difference?  Well, I believe there is, and I’m going to try and explain it to you.

Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault
And no, despite using an image of Foucault’s text, I’m not going to reference Foucault… not in this post anyway!
Let’s start with the word “discipline”.  It’s been distorted over the years to contain a conflation of the word “punishment”, but I’d like to take it back to it’s Latin roots:

“disciplina ’instruction, knowledge’, from discipulus” (taken
Okay, so the definition of the word discipulus is: disciple, student, learner, pupil (taken from

There’s a clear theme about learning and about knowledge.

Let’s look at the word “Punishment”:

“the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense: crime demands just punishment (taken from

The word has a French root, punir, which means, if we take it back to the word “punish”: “Middle English: from Old French puniss-, lengthened stem of punir ’punish’, from Latin punire, from poena ’penalty’” (taken from

Thats all about retribution, payment, penalty, a payment excised for a crime.

Hmmm… I don’t know about you, but I think that’s hardly the environment that learning happens in.  In fact I would say that learning and punishment are probably diametrically opposed, unless you’re talking about a Pavlovian dog mentality, in which case sure, they are connected.  But… and this is a big but, does the proverbial Pavlovian dog KNOW why they are being punished and what was so intrinsically wrong about what they did, or do they avoid the negative stimuli in the future because it will cause pain?  And bearing in mind that avoidance of negative stimuli is just that… avoidance… so that might include ANY and ALL forms necessary to avoid it, none of which might involve thinking about whether the avoidance action is actually good or not.

So, I’d like to say that there IS a difference between the two concepts, and that I’d like to reclaim the word discipline back to it’s Latin roots, and stick with the teaching element of it.

What does this then mean for parenting?  If we extrapolate those two meanings outwards what would we get?  Well, fortunately someone has done the work for me!  Although I would have come to the same conclusions!  I drew the following chart from this link: which you can click on to obtain all the references:

Discipline vs Punishment

Although, I would like to add what I consider to be the fundamental difference between Discipline and Punishment… (and thus the one I hold onto the most):

Punishment teaches our children to do or not do something for fear of what might happen to them, Discipline teaches our children to do or not do something out of concern for what might happen to others. “

So what might be some examples of discipline and punishment?  I’m going to draw this into two separate (but related) types for each of these words/ethos’

Physical and Non Physical Discipline and Punishment

The thing is that both Discipline and Punishment have physical and non-physical expressions, and bear in mind that the examples given in the dimensions are by no means exhaustive.  I could have added Time In for Discipline NP and Time Out for Punishment NP.  The sad thing is that we tend to focus (in discussion) on the non physical side of discipline and the physical side of punishment.  This focussing means that we avoid seeing the full spectrum of possibility for growth and healing in discipline and damage in punishment.

So by now you might be wondering, what are some more specific examples of discipline and punishment?  Especially the former, because after all, we all want to know what to do, rather than what not to do – right?  Well, you will be pleased to know that that is the next one in this series of posts on Discipline and Punishment, stay tuned!   And yes, in that one… I might talk about Foucault.

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