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Types of discipline explained

Discipline comes in many forms.
Discipline comes in many forms.
Photo by Ibai at Flickr

What is the purpose of discipline? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, discipline comes from both “the Old French descepline 'discipline, physical punishment; teaching...' and Latin disciplina 'instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.'” The purpose of disciplining children is to teach them how to be in the world. The ultimate goal is for them to learn self-discipline and not require outside control to manage their behavior.

While many people equate discipline to punishment, discipline can actually come in many varieties, both positive and negative. Behavioral psychologists have found that humans learn best from positive reinforcement, followed by negative reinforcement, and least of all by punishment. Additionally, consequences can be either natural or logical.

Reinforcement is an attempt to have a desired behavior repeated. Positive reinforcement achieves this by providing a desirable reward when a behavior occurs. The reward can be in the form of praise or material items, such as stickers, toys, or other treats. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is achieved by removing something undesired in response to a desired behavior. For example, if your child is screaming that he wants a toy, and you give him a toy in order to stop the screaming, he has negatively reinforced your behavior. In this case, the negative stimulus is screaming and the desired behavior is giving in to his demands.

Research has shown that punishment is the least effective way that humans learn. Punishment is used to extinguish an undesired behavior. This can be either through applying something undesired or removing something that is desired. Some examples of punishment are removal of privileges, time out, grounding, etc.

Natural consequences are the results of an action that occur without any intervention by an adult or other person of authority. For example, if a child leaves a book outside, it may be ruined if it rains. A logical consequence, on the other hand, is a consequence imposed by a person of authority. In order for it to be logical, it must match the behavior. For example, if two children are fighting over a toy and cannot work it out themselves, a parent or caregiver may remove the toy temporarily.

While different parenting classes and styles advocate each of these forms of discipline to varying degrees, the overarching theme is that the consequence must fit the behavior. If you have to stretch to come up with a way to discipline your child, they will not be as likely to see the connection and remember the lesson you are attempting to teach them.

Do you have a discipline question about a specific behavioral issue? Send it to me at, and I may feature it in an upcoming article.

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