Discipline ≠ Punishment

“Isn’t she too young for discipline?”

A parent asked me this question recently. They were having a debate with their nanny about whether or not their 15 month old was “ready for discipline.”

The short answer? No, she is most assuredly not too young for discipline. No child is too young for discipline. Allow me to explain further.

You see, I love it when parents bring up this subject, because it gives me an opportunity to distinguish between two concepts that we often collapse and use interchangeably, but actually are quite different from one another. The difference between these two concepts—discipline and punishment—goes beyond the semantic, and has everything to do with the fundamental nature of our beliefs, values, and expectations around parenting.

The term discipline derives its origins from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction or knowledge.” Accordingly, discipline means helping children learn limits, boundaries, and rules.

In contrast, the term punish has its roots in the Latin word poena, meaning “penalty.” Accordingly, punishment means causing someone to feel pain or discomfort as a result of an undesired behavior.

Robust tomes of research have documented the fact that when it comes to helping our children learn desired behaviors and refrain from undesired ones, punishment simply doesn’t work. Period.

In my opinion, parenting begins with a loving “first teacher” stance—every interaction is an opportunity to teach your child something about how to be in the social world while solidifying and deepening your relationship.

“The early years are about teaching, not punishing. When parents have realistic expectations about their child’s capabilities, they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.”

Michael Melmed, executive director, ZERO TO THREE

However, we can only implement age-appropriate discipline when we have developmentally appropriate expectations of our children. Unfortunately, expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Data from the Zero to Three organization’s 2015 national parent survey show that many parents hold unrealistic expectations about their children’s abilities, resulting in a so-called “expectation gap”:

  • Sharing: 43% of parents believe children can master this skill before the age of 2. However, the skill doesn’t really develop until 3.5-4 years of age.
  • Self-control: 56% of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist doing something forbidden before age 3. Within that group, 36% believe children under age 2 have this capacity. However, this ability starts developing between the ages of 3.5-4, and can take much longer to be used consistently.
  • The ability to control one’s emotions: 24% of parents believe children are able to control their emotions (such as not having a tantrum when frustrated) at 1 year or younger. 42% of parents believe children can do this at 2 years of age. However, this form of self-control only starts developing between the ages of 3.5-4.

With a solid grasp of your child’s developmental capacity in hand, you can begin to implement wholesome discipline: setting appropriate boundaries and limits while also holding your child’s feelings.

Even 15 month olds need instruction and teaching—that is to say, discipline—in order to learn about the world! What is safe, and what is unsafe? What are my family’s values? How does the world work? Although all babies come into life with inherent wisdom and a fundamental will to grow, develop, and become independent, their ability to live up to their tremendous potential depends on the patient and playful teaching of their caregivers.

Only discipline—not punishment—will help them get there.


For additional reading:


Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!


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