The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

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I have always been cognizant of the words that people say. From early in my years as a child through today, precise language has been appealing to me. Society’s prolific use of the word ‘kids’ instead or ‘children’ (the word ‘kid’ is also the term used for a young goat) is an example of imprecise language, a term that is certainly lighter in nature which I let go often enough when used.

Knowing my preference for precise language, parents will often ask me to define the difference between disciplining a child and punishing a child. Is there a difference in the words or are both the same thing?

The precise difference in meaning between the two words is stark, in my opinion, and my general philosophy may be found below.

First, let us look at the definition of these two words from the American Heritage Dictionary (

Punishment: a penalty imposed for a crime, fault or misbehaviour. From the Latin poenire and the Greek poine; poena is money paid as a fine.

Discipline: training that is expected to produce specific character or patterns of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement. From the Latin: discere, to learn.

Discipline is also listed as a synonym under punishment, reinforcing with this meaning punishment as a method of training designed to control the offender and to eliminate or reform unacceptable conduct.

In its essence, punishment is a penalty, paid with money or poena ( The connotation is that the person being punished has funds, along with knowledge of right and wrong. Does a child fit in that definition?

Discipline, with its meaning rooted in learning, has a different significance altogether. Disciples follow their teacher. People who follow a leader choose to follow.

The misuse of words can befuddle our thinking and dilute meanings so that concepts, such as punishment and discipline, appear to be interchangeable, when in fact they are not.

With a clear understanding of these two ideas, we can ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to punish or penalize our children to change behaviour, or do we want to teach by walking a path that our children can follow, a path through which they can lead others?’

Years ago, when these two terms were clarified in my mind, I realized punishment was not going to accomplish the teaching I wanted to share with children. Punishment was not going to promote the learning or self-discipline I hoped to encourage.

Punishment vs. Discipline

The question to myself then became, ‘How can I best teach my students with this pure idea of discipline?’

In what direction do I want to lead because it is one that my students will follow? The question then was not, ‘How can I best punish my child?’

There is a place for punishment in our society. It is for those who willingly break established rules or laws. Punishment is for those who willfully endanger others and/or their property. It is for those who have attained full rights as citizens. It is for those who are expected to have understanding of societal expectations and consequences.

Punishment is designed for those who have resources to pay the penalty or poena. This is what reaching a majority age means. Children are not of majority age. Children are minors.

With minors, we are in the process of teaching these children the path they should follow. Our responsibility is to lead the whole person: body, mind, heart and spirit. Our challenge is that we must model the self-discipline, the vision, the passion and the conscience that is at the heart of true learning and self-discovery for our children.

When we discipline our children, we walk a path with them of trust, helping them to understand how to live their lives, how to develop their talents, how to share their love and how to do what is right. Corrections on our path should strive to be of loving intention to serve the needs of the child.


Gregory Dixon
Head of Schools