Discipline Versus Punishment

The Importance of Their Distinction

When asked “What is the difference between discipline and punishment?” by my therapist for the first time, my knee jerk reaction was to joke it off, and I replied “I don’t know, spelling?”. Internally, I hated that I didn’t have an actual answer. I was aware there was, or should be, a distinction there, but it was lost on me. He elaborated, “Punishment is hurting someone because they wronged you: ‘You hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you.’ Discipline is instructing them, and working with them to correct the behavior.”

In my own upbringing, I was the firstborn, as well as the most rebellious. While my behavior would often result in multiple spankings before I would cease whatever mischief I was causing, my younger sister could be reduced to tears with a stern look and a harsh tone. I don’t know whether my two younger brothers were such significantly lesser troublemakers than I was, or if my parents were just too exhausted from spanking me by the time they got to them, but they got off easy either way by my standards. The wooden spoon, the plastic switch, the stick from the yard: my instruments of punishment seem arguably mild when compared to the perforated paddles and leather belts that my parents faced, sure. Nonetheless, they left emotional scars all the same, and from a young age, established neural pathways that insisted upon an inherent brokenness that must be corrected through violence.

I’ve struggled with self-abuse, on and off, for about a decade: ranging from cutting with a razor and burning myself with a lighter in my adolescent years, to ripping my hair out and punching myself in the stomach and on my arms and legs where bruises wouldn’t be visible in the last couple. It’s now been a little less than a year since I’ve had any such outbursts of self-abuse, which in all honesty might be setting a record. Now, there have certainly been circumstantial factors, and these behaviors in myself aren’t something that I blame solely on having been hit by my dad, not by any stretch. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a behavioral psychologist who’d say they’re completely unrelated issues, though. I’m not one to make excuses for myself, I’ve made significant strides in managing my temper and channeling my anger in ways that don’t involve my own bleeding or bruising, but old habits always die hard. One of the hardest things is forgiving myself when I slip up and do something to harm myself, because it’s easy to guilt-spiral into a pattern that turns back into a habit.

Often I find the (typically) men who say “Well, I was beat as a kid and I turned out just fine,” are usually the same brand of sad soul having someone like me ring them up for two packs of cigarettes and at least that many tall cans of beer, night after night after night. Or worse yet, using that weak-ass argument as a rationalization to justify beating their own children. In any case, we are pretty fucking far from “just fine”. We can do better.

It’s difficult to say what manner of discipline is appropriate for chastising children so young that they can’t yet comprehend rationality or reasoning. One cannot verbally explain to a toddler why they can’t throw a tantrum in public to get what they want, and expect them to internalize that information to a point of behavioral correction. It simply doesn’t work; the necessary psychological infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. Spanking a child when they do something like break something they were cautioned not to touch, in my opinion, is hardly abusive; I consider it more of a lesson in immediate consequence. Once again, I don’t have kids, and I’m not even sure I want any, so it could be argued my opinion on the subject is null anyway. Fair enough. I may well change my mind if I do end up having children, but in any case, I do have to exist around all these other people’s offspring, so I’d prefer if fewer of them grow up with psychological scarring and internalized self-hatred. The general consensus from psychologists, as far as I’ve encountered, is that hitting kids rarely ever yields the desired results long-term.

I don’t begrudge parents who spank their children under certain circumstances. And when I say spanking, I mean an open palm brought with restrained, deliberate force against the child’s rear end, not sadistically wailing on them like a tearful pinata. “Spanking” does not refer to whipping a child with a leather belt or a stick, and it doesn’t take place out of anger. When done with maligned intentions or out of rage, spanking easily shifts from an objective deterrent into a form of abuse. Most of the time I would say it’s better to try and find another way of correcting the behavior, but I understand. I would agree with some of the older generation who claim there’s a trend of disregard for listening to authority in the youth today, but I think that has more to do with authority and our parents lying to us than not getting hit as much or as hard.

At the end of the day, on some level, it’s always going to be an issue of cooperative parental discernment for what is and isn’t an appropriate method for reprimanding their children and correcting their behavior. The precise definition of what constitutes unlawful child abuse has obviously evolved over the years. We should always be striving to take better care of each other, especially our young, impressionable ones. I don’t know who wants to die on the hill of being socially permitted to beat their kids, but there are more worthwhile causes to be so dedicated. If you can’t conceive of any way to correct behavior without violence, maybe hold off on having children.

A 26-year-old phlebotomist who lives in Grand Rapids, MI. His interests include movies, linguistics, philosophy, religion & spirituality, comedy, and sexuality.

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