3 Reasons Why Discipline is Harder Than Punishment

by Michael Kelley June 20, 2017

The other day I asked a friend of mine, who also has 3 young children, how much time, as a percentage, he spends in disciplining his kids. “85%” was the answer he gave. My response?

“Really? That little?”

As a parent, you have to be engaged in the discipline of your kids in one form or another. Sometimes that discipline is reactionary. They make a bad choice, and you bring the discipline. Sometimes it’s just teaching, disciplining them to teach them how to live in the world. But discipline seems like a very important part of parenting to me. If you need proof, I bet you could ask any childcare worker at your church or the YMCA or the local daycare what is one thing a parent could do to make their job easier, and you’d probably get back, “Play a more active role in disciplining your kids.”

But discipline isn’t the same thing as punishment. In fact, discipline is a heck of a lot harder than punishment. Here are 3 reasons why:

1. Discipline takes longer. If you are strictly punishing your kids, then just put them in time out. Or spank them. Whatever it is you do in your house. You can do it quickly, and then it’s over and done with. The reason why punishment is quicker is because the goal of punishment is exclusively reactive; they did something bad, and you need to make sure they don’t do it again. But when you discipline, your goal isn’t just behavioral; it’s about the heart. Heart formation takes much longer than behavior modification. That leads us to the second reason why discipline is harder.

2. Discipline requires teaching. If punishment is about behavior modification, then the “why” isn’t really important. All you are doing is trying to create compliant kids. But with discipline, you have to go deeper. You have to (in 5-year-old language) help a child understand not only that what they did was wrong, but why what they did was wrong. It requires you to help them think about their actions not just in terms of consequences, but in terms of motivation, which leads us to reason 3.

3. The focus of discipline is deeper. Punishment is about behaving; disciplining is about becoming. When you choose the hard, long, thoughtful road of discipline, you are more concerned about the future – the long future. You are seeking not just to break bad habits, but to instill a need for the gospel now in your kids that will form not just their actions, but their hearts in the years to come.

For a model of how to discipline rather than punish, we look to the Lord as our Heavenly Father. Indeed, if we spend so much of our time as parents disciplining our kids, then we can’t really talk about God as Father without realizing that He’s engaged in that work of discipline, too. God is committed not to our behavior but our hearts; not just in what we do but to what we are becoming. That’s why He disciplines rather than punishes His kids. God help us to do the same.