Building Blocks

Maullika Sharma
Can you discipline your child without punishing them?
By Maullika Sharma

As I was thinking about my last article in this series, I got a question from a reader which fit right into what I was planning to cover and sealed the deal for me– the topic of effective disciplining. The reader’s question went like this: If the children are naughty, not interested in studies or of careless character we are bound to punish them by beating them a little or scaring them about their future. Kindly guide us if there is any alternate way of mending problematic children.

I want to start off by clearing a misconception and highlighting the difference between disciplining and punishment. Often parents use these words interchangeably; however, they are fundamentally different in their motivation. The goal of punishment is to penalize a child for past misbehavior. The goal of disciplining, on the other hand, is to shape future behavior. This difference is something we often forget as we try to make the punishment as painful as possible, thinking it is shaping future behavior. When we understand this difference, the premise that punishment needs to be painful gets thrown out of the window.

Since disciplining is about shaping future behavior, we need to be clear about what specific behavior we are trying to modify, and the ideal behavior that we are trying to achieve. We also need to understand and identify what the consequence that will be most effective for your child is. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. What may be effective for one child may be completely ineffective for another. If a child enjoys watching TV, then an effective consequence may be cut down TV-time. However, if a child does not watch TV at all, then clearly that will have no meaning.

The intensity of the physical pain that the consequence causes is of no relevance. Behaviors change when children know the ‘rules’ they are meant to follow, know that if they don’t follow the ‘rules’ they will face a consequence for sure, and know, beforehand what the consequence will be. Learning happens not because of the intensity of pain caused by the consequence, but because of the certainty and frequency of its enforcement. This seems pretty simple and straight-forward. But you will be surprised at how many parents assume their children know what is right and wrong without clearly defining it for them. Then, they enforce a consequence only when they have the energy and time to do it, and just pick a consequence at random depending on their mood.

Children, by definition, test limits of how much they can get away with. Just as adults do. How many times do we jump a red light at the traffic signal just to test if we can get away with it, pretty sure that nine times out of 10, we will not have to face any consequence? If we knew for sure that every time we jumped a red light we would have to pay a fine, then we would not take that chance because the one minute we would save would probably not be worth the fine. Somehow, when it comes to our children, we expect them to comply without knowing the rules, without knowing the consequences, and even without knowing if there will be a consequence at all.

If your child is expected to come home from playing at 7 pm, your child must know that if they don’t come back by 7 pm they will not be allowed to watch TV that evening (as an example of a consequence), and that they will face this consequence 100 per cent of the time. If your child knows that, then he or she may then decide that the extra 5 minutes of play is not worth the trade-off, and over a period of time the behavior will change. However, if your child feels that there is a 75 per cent chance that they will be able to get away with it without any consequence, they will test the limits.

Remember, I said learning happens with the knowledge of the certainty of consequence, and frequency of consequence. So in the above example if the consequence was that your child will not be allowed to watch TV for the following week, then as parents you have lost the chance to enforce a consequence for the rest of the week. This means your child will get only one learning opportunity in the whole week. And also, in all probability, you will get so tired of having to enforce this for a week, that after the second or third day you will give in and send your child down to play on your own.

So for disciplining (and I am saying disciplining - not punishing), there are a few important things parents need to understand.

Firstly, you need to pick your battles carefully. There may be fifty different behaviors you want rectified, but you don’t want your home and life to become a battlefield. So, you must pick the top five behaviors that you absolutely need to address and just stick with those. Often, this means letting go of some of your own hang-ups and irrational expectations from your children.

Secondly, clearly define the limits of acceptable and unacceptable behavior for your child. Define what the consequence will be for crossing the line. Make sure the consequence you pick is something you as a parent are confident of being able to enforce all the time (this is often the most challenging part).

Thirdly, make sure the consequence is enforced every time the line is crossed. Finally, remember that the limits that are defined and set have to be in the context of the child’s age and must be age appropriate. As children grow older, limits may need to be revised, and defining the limits will need to be more about having a conversation and negotiation around those limits as opposed to dictating what is acceptable.

Lastly, to the parent who sent me the query I would like to say that there are no ‘problematic’ children, there are only ‘problematic’ behaviors –these can be addressed by effective disciplining, not painful punishment.

Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at