Discipline vs Punishment For Toddlers

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Parenting toddlers is a constant state of learning and excitement. One of the things that seems to be hard for many parents is the mastering the art of discipline for toddlers. Especially when it comes to discipline vs punishment – and how to tell the difference.  


I am a mom to a two-year-old girl who is energetic, happy, and strong-willed. Maybe all parents of toddlers feel that way. In fact, I’ve never heard a parent of a small child say “oh yes, my little one is just so passive and goes along with anything we suggest!”

In the first year of parenting, you don’t really have to think about discipline. Your kids are tiny little infants who grow into barely functioning mini-humans over the course of a year. Almost everything they do is to be celebrated or cleaned up after. In that first year, kids don’t really make poor decisions intentionally, it pretty much all happens by accident.

But after that first year, you enter a whole new ball game. I know we didn’t give our daughter enough credit for being so smart, but she observed us and figured out how to play us real quick.

As she crossed over the 18-month mark we had to start dabbling in time-outs and other methods of behavior correcting. And while my husband seemed to handle this new parenting role really well, I have found myself failing at it over and over again.

My 2-year-old now knows that the key to beating me is just to outlast the energy I have to enforce a punishment.

If she hits me and I tell her that means timeout for 1 minute, she knows that she just has to struggle to get out of the time out corner (we have a designated time out chair in a corner of our kitchen) until I give up with trying to hold her there.

It goes a lot differently when my husband is involved. She knows that he means business and he won’t put up with any silly business.


I believe that is because my husband and I viewed this parenting role in two completely different ways.


I had so much guilt over using any type of punishment on my daughter. I had read books and articles that said that punishing her would make her never trust me or it would lead to years of therapy down the road. And while those articles aren’t necessarily opinions I agree with, it was hard not to think about that when my child was crying big crocodile tears as I forced her to stay in time out.

My big issue was feeling guilt over being the cause of suffering in her life, no matter how small that suffering was.


But the way my husband viewed it was very different. He viewed it as correcting bad behaviors now for her long term benefit. He was able to see through the crocodile tears and know that while time-out might not be fun for either of them in the moment,  the long term benefit of her knowing not to hit or steal toys from friends was better for her.

I recently heard someone quote Zig Ziglar on a topic related to this.

“Punishment is something that you do TO someone. Discipline is something you do FOR someone.” – Zig Ziglar


Hearing that quote made it all click in my head. By not following through on discipline with my daughter, I was just punishing her (and myself) which was not having any of the lasting impacts that were going to pay off for her down the road.

My husband had it right and was able to realize that while sending her to time-out was not fun for either of them, it was being done for her good. And we were disciplining her because we loved her too much not to.


That has completely changed my view of discipline and has given me the strength to resist the urge to give up when my daughter’s antics exhaust me. Even though she is only two, these years are so important and my duty as a parent is to continually prepare her for the next steps in life.

I would be doing her a disservice if I just played the role of a friend, or fun-mom all the time and didn’t correct her when she started veering into mean and disrespectful behaviors. Our goal as parents is to have our kids be kind and loving people who always strive to do the right thing, and don’t back down just because something isn’t easy. Which means that I have to lead by example and stay strong while disciplining them.

I am still learning what forms of discipline work best for our kids (although my friend Jamie has some really great tips on how to get better at this!), but my mindset about what is best for my child is more clear.

Mom guilt seems to make this a little bit harder because it is hard to watch our kids suffer (or more realistically – feel moderately uncomfortable). But this change in mindset has helped me push back ‘mom guilt’ more and more. Because it will be much more painful to teach my kids these lessons later in life – or worse, watch them suffer the consequences of not being prepared for the real world.


Do you struggle with viewing discipline as punishment? I hope this encourages you! Being a great parent is not something that comes to any of us overnight! We are all trying to figure it out as we go, and I always like to share my latest parenting insights with you in hopes that it may be helpful for any other mamas going through the same thing.


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