Discipline vs. Punishment

by Walker Moore

Rite of Passage Parenting: Discipline versus Punishment

In recent news we’ve heard a lot about a certain athlete who has used a switch on his child. Since I don’t have any other information, I can’t make a judgment on this particular situation. But I can make a comment on society as a whole.

I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when you would have been the odd man out if your parents hadn’t disciplined you with a paddle or a switch. In the elementary school I attended all the teachers had paddles on their desks–a great deterrent to bad behavior. If your teacher’s paddle didn’t make you think before you acted up, a bigger one sat on top of the principal’s desk. This instrument was greatly feared not only because of its holes but because of the rumor in the elementary hallways that the principal could swing it faster than Babe Ruth could swing a baseball bat.

In our school, you didn’t get a paddling but “swats,” the number determined by the nature of the crime. The greater the crime, the more swats you got. The procedure was always the same: you bent over, grabbed your ankles and the appropriate number of swats would be applied. In all my years of elementary school, I can count on one hand the number of students who actually got a swat. The fear of the paddle alone straightened most of us out.

But it wasn’t just the swat at school I dreaded. I knew if I got a spanking there my parents would give me one at home. There seemed to be a great conspiracy in those days between teachers and parents when it came to discipline and proper behavior. But I have to ask this question: Have we gone so far that there are no logical consequences to bad behavior? And I have a second question to ask as well: Is all discipline child abuse?

The media seems to say that any type of discipline used with a child can be reported as abuse. As a minister of the gospel, I’ve both seen evidence of and reported child abuse. Because some parents go too far with their discipline, should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? If all parents who spanked their children were reported in the ’50s and ’60s no one would have been left at home. In fact, if spanking my children were the criterion for child abuse, I would have been reported myself.

Since it seems there is no more discipline or logical consequences for bad behavior teachers tell me their hands are tied. All we can do is let the behavior continue until the only recourse society has is to incarcerate these individuals. Our juvenile detention centers, jails and prisons are overpopulated with people who should have been disciplined long before they got there.

But the Bible does have something to say on this topic: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Prov. 13:24). If you love your children, you will discipline them. Children need corrections in their thinking and behavior. Without guidance a young life will always grow to the side of depravity. And yes, sometimes—not often—I think a little rear-end discomfort is necessary as a way to get that young life’s attention.

But if you haven’t put enough grace into your child discipline doesn’t work. Grace is the key factor in any meaningful correction. When grace is present, the child can look into your eyes and see not disappointment but their own worth and value. Surrounded by the language of acceptance they know they are loved. But discipline without grace always leads to rebellion.

Finally, there is a difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is always done with an effort to move someone to a higher level of living. It has a goal: we are intentionally moving a behavior from one set of thinking and processing skills to another. Punishment, on the other hand, does two things: it makes the punisher feel better and the punished feel worse. Punishment doesn’t move a child forward, it just satisfies the grievance. We send people to jail for that same purpose. According to the Bible discipline of any kind should come out of love, not frustration.

A society that has no logical consequences quickly becomes a society that has no values. God said in the garden, “when you eat from [the tree], you will certainly die” (Gen. 3:17b). They ate, they died. That’s a logical consequence.

Where are the logical consequences for today’s society? We won’t find them on the evening news. But if we don’t start using them in our parenting, I fear the news will only get worse.