What is “discipline,” and how do we differentiate it from punishment or abuse?

What is discipline, and how do we distinguish it from punishment, and from abuse? From my anti-childist perspective, all pedagogy is harmful, and therefore it is not my place to give answers to such questions. But that doesn’t stop me from analyzing what others have written on the subject. Opinions on the issue of discipline differ greatly. Some people think corporal punishment can be part of discipline, while others do not include it.

Wikipedia gives a general definition of child discipline:

Discipline is used by parents to teach their children about expectations, guidelines and principles. Children need to be given regular discipline to be taught right from wrong and to be maintained safe. Child discipline can involve rewards and punishments to teach self-control, increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors. While the purpose of child discipline is to develop and entrench desirable social habits in children, the ultimate goal is to foster sound judgement and morals so the child develops and maintains self-discipline throughout the rest of his/her life.

I find this particular definition interesting, like some of the others I quote here, because of what it doesn’t say as much as what it does say. For instance, whose expectations are children to be taught about? What guidelines and principles? Do children need rewards and punishments to know right from wrong? If you need rewards and punishments to teach children morality, aren’t you teaching them to deny their own values in favor of your own? Who determines what is a desirable behavior in a child? Who determines what desirable social habits are? If the goal of discipline is to maintain discipline, isn’t it a fundamentally circular enterprise?

There is clearly something missing from this definition, and I think it’s pretty clear what that is: the alignment paradigm. We expect children to align their behavior and thoughts to those expected within their social roles. Children need rewards and punishments to be taught how to align their behavior. Desirable social habits in children are those habits which conform to the habits they should have within their social roles. Children need self-discipline in order to integrate their obedience and turn it into lifetime conformity to their social roles.

The circularity is removed once you understand what’s missing. The goal of discipline is obedience and conformity. The child must internalize that conformity in order to be a “successful” adult. I have previously commented on the horrific nature of this belief in the child internalizing orders. This process can only be described as brainwashing. The goal of brainwashing is to overwrite a person’s personality with one that conforms to a certain model, the goal being that the person voluntarily and actively seeks to conform to that model (by negating doubts, by shutting down the outside world, by confessing deviations, etc). The fact that people aim to brainwash children to “self-discipline” is profoundly anti-freedom. Here is another instance where discipline is described as brainwashing:

Punishment interferes with the development of internal controls by teaching children that it is someone else’s responsibility to control them and decide what behavior is “bad” and what the consequences will be. Children may then conclude that it is OK to misbehave if they can avoid getting caught or if they are willing to accept the consequences.

Discipline teaches children a particular misbehavior is bad because it violates the social order, thus promoting the development of internal controls.

Again we see the alignment paradigm in the use of the term “social order,” and this is linked with the brainwashing in a clear way: the brainwashing happens because of the belief in the “social order” that must be followed. Before you worship, you need a god to worship. A relation to an ideal cannot be established before the ideal itself has been established. So in the process of putting the alignment paradigm into effect, the parent must first impart to the child what it is that they must adapt to: their social roles (gender, race, religion, class, etc) and the punishment that occurs if they deviate from those roles (either from the parents themselves or from society as a whole), in short, the “social order.” The truth of discipline is completely and utterly dependent on the truth of the belief in the “social order”: without that belief, there can be no validity to discipline, because discipline seems to be all about enforcing it.

The definition, however, does not help me establish the difference between discipline and punishment at all. It states that punishment is bad because it imparts to children the belief that they must be controlled by others in order to be moral. But how is this not the case in discipline as well? Enforcing belief in the social order is a form of control as well. Any act against the child can be described as discipline or punishment under these definitions. Ultimately, I think this is just to give pedagogy an “out”: if their children don’t conform well enough, it must have been because the parents used “punishment” instead of “discipline.” The sacred doctrine always works (another attribute of cult brainwashing).

There is another trend in these explanations: the association of abuse or punishment with anger.

Discipline is a parental response to specific misbehavior. A child can expect that if he fails to meet expectations that he will be corrected. Child abuse is often unpredictable. Children who are abused often don’t know what will set their parent off. The rules and consequences are not clear, and children do not know what will result in a physical assault.

But in both cases, the child is being evaluated based on standards determined by the parents, not the child. So both are fundamentally unpredictable, for the child. The social expectations, as mediated by the parents, which the child is supposed to follow are only partially known to it.

Here is another example:

Discipline is an intentional consequence, given by the parent or caretaker, for inappropriate action and designed to be a teaching moment for the child. It is not an emotional or angry reaction.

For example if a two-year-old who insists on throwing food at the table has been warned that continuing to do so will result in the food being taken away, and the child throws the food anyway, taking the food away calmly is both a logical consequence and a disciplinary action. The intent is to teach the child that throwing food is not acceptable and that there are consequences to such behavior. If the child is very young, such as the age given in this example, the parent and child can have a “snack” an hour or so later. This will still teach the child the lesson and also ensure proper nutrition.

On the other hand, if the parent were to scream and hit the child for the same behavior, that is considered punishment. It was administered by a parent who was not in control of his or her emotions and it has very little ability to teach a child about appropriate behavior. It only teaches the child to expect pain if the child throws food.

This definition seems to equate punishment with corporal punishment and discipline with a normal reaction to a situation. I don’t see how taking away a two year old’s food in the moment represents a “teaching moment.” The child is not being taught anything. I agree that it is not an emotional reaction, but “not being an emotional reaction” can describe a lot of unhealthy parental acts, including corporal punishment. In fact, proponents of corporal punishment make a point of explaining that it should not be an emotional reaction, that it should be performed according to the ritual, and so on. The fact that you’re not angry when you do something does not make it rational, or even reasonable.

If the only thing that distinguishes discipline from punishment is the emotional state of the parent, not something about the nature of the act itself, then the distinction is useless. Most parents are incompetent amateurs, and their emotional state is no help in deciding whether their actions are warranted or not, because they simply do not have the instincts of a person who has trained in professional childcare, and done professional childcare, for a long time.

Discipline, punishment, or whatever you call it, is basically a tool to combat non-compliance. The only real difference is whether that non-compliance is directed against the parents’ specific rules, against social rules, or against the parents’ immediate emotional well-being. And I think this is what these definitions may be clumsily attempting to differentiate: “discipline” is done for good reasons, to enforce the parents’ rules or social rules, and “punishment”/”abuse” is done to assuage the parents’ immediate emotional state. From an anti-childist perspective, none of it is a good thing. Of course we should expect parents to get frustrated and to lash out at their children: they are amateurs who have no idea what they’re doing, and are not trained to deal with these situations. What else do you expect to happen?

3 thoughts on “What is “discipline,” and how do we differentiate it from punishment or abuse?

  1. Francois Tremblay December 18, 2016 at 01:25

    Sorry Thomas L Ryan, but I’m not going to approve your appeal or essay or whatever that was. It’s waaaay too long. I also have no clue wtf it was about.

    • Thomas L Ryan December 18, 2016 at 11:39

      No worries, I thought you might enjoy it. Nvm.

  2. […] with spanking as a line between “discipline” and “punishment.” I’ve previously written about how I see this as a distinction without a difference. Ritualizing something does not […]

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