Discipline and Punishment: Standing Your Child on the Corner?

Roland lives in my home town of Jacksonville, Florida. According to media reports, his mother, Marcia, decided to have her eight-year-old son stand on the corner holding a sign that says, “I was rude to my teacher so I can’t come to school. I am sorry!”


This story got national media attention and professional analysis. Roland’s mother felt, after the punishment, that Roland benefited from it. She says he is doing well at church, home, and school. He interviews on national television and appeared cute, polite, and happy.


Parents ask questions about this and other stories like it, including a massively popular YouTube video of a father shooting his fifteen-year-old daughter’s laptop with a large caliber pistol. (It has been viewed more than 33 million times.)


One website offered this professional opinion: “In all cases, the parents of these kids [given comparable punishments] felt all other measures had failed and negative reinforcement and fear of future humiliation was the only measure left. They all admitted this was a measure of last resort. Many of the stories involved teenagers who started to skip school and engage in activities that would clearly impact their futures. And, all the kids felt the punishment helped turn their lives around.”


My viewpoint this approach is all about the difference between discipline and punishment. I am saying that parents never punish children. They discipline but never punish.


The parents of these children are punishing their children, a sure sign that something dysfunctional is being revealed in the parenting process and the relationship between parents and children. The parents are admitting to their children and the entire world that the process of discipline has failed. They have become part of a different strategy, altered their relationship with their children, and begun imposing punish instead of offering discipline.


Confusion abides in this discussion because of a well-developed error that any kind of physical response to a child’s bad behavior is wrong. Usually, “professionals” will assume, without much explanation that includes what I’m discussing here, that physical punishment is always bad because it doesn’t work.


Here’s quote: “A swat on the bottom is a mild physical punishment. While it may do no permanent physical harm, it does not help the child develop a conscience. It teaches him that physical violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems.”


Then, the psycho-babble begins about any physical punishment is more about the anger and frustration of the parents, etc. The problem with this argument is that you begin with a faulty definition of punishment that ignores the difference between discipline and punishment. To strike a child in anger or frustration is abusive and doesn’t serve as either discipline or punishment; it is simply abuse. To use physical discipline to stop unwanted action and provide the strength of will to produce good behavior is the opposite of punishment.


The difference? Discipline can be part of a loving relationship based upon trust and acceptance that recognizes the need to give children strength they do not possess to overcome behaviors that are unacceptable, dangerous, inconsistent with the culture of the home. Discipline can provide children the strength of will they need for good decisions, for good behaviors beneficial to the child and the home. 


Punish is more about the failure of discipline. Punishment is reserved for evil, for people determined to do the wrong thing, to act in ways contrary to the good of others, and to ignore laws and regulations as if they should be an exception the rules. Punishment isn’t discipline because it is not designed to stop unwanted action and produce right behaviors. It is designed to make the person being punished stop the behaviors because they will experience something so unpleasant that they will avoid the bad behavior.


The Bible gives clear guidelines for discipline and clear contrasts between discipline and punishment. The Bible offers us the understanding that God Himself using pain to discipline His true children, that children who are not disciplined would be a strange aberration, and that loving discipline producing right behaviors. The Bible speaks of discipline in terms of obedience and submission.


Discipline continues into our adult lives as we bring discipline into a self-disciplined lifestyle. Someone besides us lays the foundation of a mature self-discipline in our lives. That someone is higher and stronger than we are, someone with strength of will and judgment more mature than ours.


Discipline only works in a loving relationship and surrendered submission because the factors allow for a level of trust. Trust assumes that the discipline comes for our good, from a motivation of improving us, a place of sincere devotion to our best interests. Children have to be loved, be learning to love in return, and willing put themselves into a place of trust with the person who disciplines them for discipline to be effective.


The difference in the motivation behind discipline and punishment couldn’t greater in this regard. The relationship between the child and the person providing the discipline cannot be compared to the relationship between a criminal and the justice system.


When parents punish children, punishment is usually justified with statements like “I just don’t know what else to do,” or, “I’ve talked and talked until I’m blue in the face and nothing changes,” or, “I’ve given them a good home, food, clothes, and a family, and this is what I get!” This seems to be the motivation behind the standing on the street corner with a sign models of behavior modification. How effective they might be is beside the point of a Biblical model of child-rearing.


The Bible contrasts the discipline of a father who loves those who are His true children with the punishment of government assigned to be a terror to them that do evil with a sword in its hand. Punishment is meant to mark a person who is dangerous to other people, whose behavior is a threat to peace, safety, and cultural norms, so that person’s behavior will be curbed. Punishment usually results in the person working to find a way to do what they want without getting caught, or carrying on their behavior in a way that does not effect other people. Punishment does not stop unwanted behaviors and is not transformational.


Some would find it acceptable to that make a man who preys on children sexually incomplete by surgery, for example, an extreme punishment that many find justified by the damage the crime can produce in the innocent. This could never be seen as discipline. It could only be punishment. It wouldn’t modify the motivations that produce the evil behavior. It would limit the possibilities of acting out the behavior.


Through restrictions, prison limits the movements of a thief. However, the limitations do not transform a thief into a person who respects private property. Although the limitations may provide an opportunity for transformational intervention to occur. God designs punishment for government application. He provides government, with a sword, to be a terror to them that do evil.


Discipline can provide a child the inner strength of will to choose right because they have developed the strength of will to desire right. In the long run that choice becomes a part of who they really are, an alteration of their identity and the motivations of their heart. Loving parents discipline in love and loving children receive the pain of that discipline understanding the motive of their parents to be a deep, abiding concern for their personal well-being.


They change their behaviors to please their parents, but in doing so they enjoy the power of freedom. They choose righteousness because they want righteousness. They mature into adults who have the strength of will to live by standards outside an higher than themselves. Upon that foundation, they form the basis for honor, dignity, courage, trust, and self-giving sacrifice.


Certainly, I am not saying that forcing a child to stand on a street corner is the same as castration or prison. I am saying that punishment and discipline is not the same thing at all. The cultural adjustment that has come through the idea that children are full of beauty and we need only provide them the opportunity to express it has opened our cultures to out of control behaviors. I am making a generalization, of course, and not referring to any one situation or behavior. I am only saying that the idea that children should be sheltered from any painful discipline because they will find themselves and form their identity without guidance is contrary to the instruction manual the Creator provided us.


Understand that discipline stops unwanted action, but discipline doesn’t stop children from being children. Discipline is the next step after clear communication, not the first step after a child does something we wish they hadn’t done.


For example, it is good to teach a child to set his glass of milk back from the edge of the table. The glass is more susceptible to being knocked off by an elbow or careless gesture when it is right in the way. If a child spills the glass of milk because he is a child, this is not rebellion or even disobedience. Clean it up. If it gets on your new suit, keep your anger and frustration to yourself because it was accident. This is neither a moment of punishment nor an opportunity for discipline.


However, while you are teaching a child to set his glass back from the edge of the table, reinforce the learning process with repeated communication. Don’t assume that “I told you once” will get a young child into immediate response. Expect to deal with some mishaps. But if little Johnny refuses to listen, tells you to get your business out of his business, and insists that you don’t have the right to tell him where to set his glass, you got a problem of a different order! The lesson of who is boss should be approached with careful, non-aggressive determination: the will of the adult is stronger than the will of the child. You aren’t destroying his will with discipline that demands that his bend to your wishes; you are strengthening his will and offering him a secure environment in which to mature.


Without this security, he will test the fence to find where the boundaries are. Without this intervention into his curious search for identity, he will lack proper definition altogether and become a victim of lower impulses.


Discipline is an appropriate means of developing strength of will. Don’t waste it on your petty frustrations. Don’t substitute anger for love. Don’t impose silly rules just to prove you are boss. But insist upon being the leader. Insist that your voice be recognized and heeded. Insist that proper respect for authority be part of his character. Recognize the difference between “I will do what I please” rebellion that is testing your leadership and “I’m not fully developed” mishaps that become a source of frustration to your well-ordered world.


In so doing, you should avoid the need for standing your child on a street corner to prove that you insist upon good behaviors. In the case of Roland, a sudden shift in behavior might have been a cry for help. In any case, the crime didn’t fit the punishment, and parents should never punish children. I commend his mother for being involved, caring, loving, and insistent that Roland show respect to his teacher, but I do not think this punishment is an appropriate example of the discipline strategies parents should apply to rearing good children.

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Dr. Don

Dr. Don

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