Love and Limits: The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

Lead by example, not by fear or punishment.

Your child is being stubborn, belligerent, even. They refuse to understand logic, pleading, or your cries for them to simply settle down. You realize there is a need for discipline. So how do you go about this? For some, the first instinct may be to scold, for others it is to spank. How do we show our children right from wrong, allow them to learn from their mistakes, and show them that every action has a consequence?

Too often in society we see an idealized version of parenthood. Children do exactly as we say, as soon as we say them. They lack real autonomy until they’re adults, and even then, we come first in everything they do. That’s not always true. Children act out, children hesitate to follow orders, they procrastinate and do not do as they are told sometimes. We need to have realistic ideas of how a child will act based on age.

Toddlers do not yet have the capacity to internalize structure. A three-year-old does not have the understanding of his/her behavior that an eight-year-old has. Internalizing structure after a certain point is a good way to start, first with you and then without you. Instead of strict rules, setting guidelines and giving positive reinforcement when they are followed is a simple way to guide your children into appropriate behaviors.

Young children often act for attention. Naughty things, to them, seem to be a quick way to get a reaction from mom and dad. We need to get started on preventative training. Giving love, time and, attention generously, especially when their behavior is acceptable will make them associate good behavior with attention and obeying the rules of the home. Enforcing a routine and schedule that is structured, yet not rigid, goes a long way in helping children feel useful and in control.

We need to prioritize preventative behaviors, positive criticism, and praise. We need to see children as individuals with their own pride and their own personalities. Criticizing them personally instead of their behaviors, punishing them in front of others, especially in public places or among friends, not keeping our anger in check, and punishing to a degree far beyond the nature of the behavior are only going to teach them to resent you and obey you out of fear.

Discipline means to lead by example, not by punishment. There’s no right way to discipline, each child is different with different needs and capabilities. What we need to focus on is empathizing with the child, what they are thinking, and how those thoughts manifest in their behaviors.


Erica Komisar is a veteran psychoanalyst and parent-coach who has been in private practice for 25 years. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and The New York Freudian Society, Ms Komisar is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations and childcare settings including The Garden House School, Goldman Sachs, Shearman and Sterling and SWFS Early Childhood Center. She lives is New York City with her husband, optometrist and social entrepreneur Dr. Jordan Kassalow, and their three teenage children.

Her book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters will be published in April 2017 by Penguin Random House. Follow her on Twitter @EricaKomisarCSW.