Discipline is not Punishment

This has come up a few times in working with people and has generally led to some “Ah Ha!!” moments, especially when the topic is self-discipline.

Our society tends to equate discipline and punishment. However, the words have completely different roots, and those roots have completely different meanings. The root word of “discipline” is the same as the root word of “disciple” and the meaning of that root is “instruction, learning”. So discipline involves teaching, and self-discipline involves teaching ourselves.

The word “punishment” comes from the word “penalty” and the root word of “penalty” means “pain.” So punishment is about pain and discipline is about teaching.

We now know that, despite aphorisms to the contrary, pain is NOT a useful teacher except for developing simple reflexes. For example, learning not to touch something that is hot. However, when we need to learn a complex task, pain is either useless or interferes with learning.  If you want someone to learn a complex task, then you have to teach them the processes that will make them successful, not simply inflict pain on them.

That brings us to self-discipline. When we confuse discipline with punishment, then we will tend to avoid self-discipline as we are usually in enough pain already. Who would want to add more? Or we grit our teeth and punish ourselves for “bad behaviors”, which does nothing to teach us how to avoid those behaviors. Eventually we get worn out and then beat ourselves up for not having “self-discipline.”

However, when we understand discipline as teaching instead of punishment, then self-discipline is simply the art of learning to teach ourselves. We stop punishing ourselves mindlessly and look for ways to train ourselves to change. Whether we are trying to develop healthier habits, adhere to a course of study, or be a better spouse, parent or friend, self-discipline simply involves looking for ways to learn those more effectively. We become our own teachers.

When we understand how discipline is fundamentally different than punishment, then we can work to emphasize learning over pain or discomfort when we discipline others. This is especially important if we are in a parenting, mentoring or supervisory role.

Note that discipline is far more difficult to perform than punishment. Any idiot can inflict pain on someone, or make their life more miserable. To teach someone effectively, to discipline someone, one must know the subject that is being taught and understand where the person is having difficulty. One must then give the person tasks that will teach them what they need to learn in a progressive manner. Those tasks may involve discomfort or even pain, as I experienced many times during my training. But the discomfort or pain are not the purpose of the tasks, and the tasks will usually be more effective at teaching if they minimize the pain involved.

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