Picture of Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay is the founder of MindfulTeachers.org and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.

Mindful Discipline: The Heart of Authoritative Parenting

Parenting experts often refer to four styles of raising children:

  • Neglectful parents are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of their children.
  • Authoritarian parents have a very structured environment and expect their children to follow the rules.
  • Permissive parents are very warm and caring, but they don’t provide much structure. 
  • Authoritative parents provide both warmth and structure, combining some of the characteristics of authoritarian and permissive parents. 

Authoritative parents focus on disciplining their children, rather than harshly punishing them or failing to set appropriate limits. 

 What’s the Difference Between Discipline and Punishment?

Psychologists and parenting experts use the words ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ in a different way from what you may have heard growing up:

  • Some parents might say they’re “disciplining” their kids when they’re actually engaging in harsh, or even abusive, practices like hitting them with a belt. 
  • And some parents might say “I’m going to teach you a lesson” as a threat of violence rather than an actual desire for the kid to learn something useful. 
  • Meanwhile, other parents might have a very thoughtful approach to putting their kids “on punishment,” because that’s the expression typically used in their community.

For our purposes, think about the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘disciple’ or ‘student,’ and punir, meaning ‘to take vengeance.’

As psychotherapist Amy Morin explains,

“While punishment focuses on making a child suffer for breaking the rules, discipline is about teaching him how to make a better choice next time.”

Morin identifies four problems with punishment (as in, “suffering for breaking the rules”): 

1) “Punishment is about controlling a child, rather than teaching the child how to control himself.”

2) “Punishment changes the way a child thinks about himself. […] Instead of thinking he made a bad choice, he may believe he’s a bad person.” 

3) “Punishments don’t teach children how to behave.” (For example, if you spank a kid for hitting a sibling, that sends a very confusing message.)

4) “Harsh punishment can cause kids to dwell on their anger toward the person inflicting the pain, rather than the reason they got in trouble.” 

(See “The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline” at VeryWell Family)

Some parents go to the opposite extreme, acting more like a buddy and worrying their kids won’t like them if they impose any rules or restrictions. 

Dr. Shauna Shapiro and Dr. Chris White offer a reassuring perspective on this:  

“There are times when we are clear that something is not in our child’s best interest and we must simply hold the line, firmly and lovingly. When your twelve-year-old asks you to go to an unsupervised party, it is not unkind for the answer to be ‘No.’ When your child wants a fourth cookie before bed, it does not damage the relationship to unilaterally decide against it.”

(Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits, p. 78)


In the words of Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, 

“There are very important times when we need to practice being clear and strong and unequivocal with our children. Let this come as much as possible from awareness and generosity and discernment, rather than out of fear, self-righteousness, or the desire to control. Mindful parenting does not mean being overindulgent, neglectful, or weak; nor does it mean being rigid, domineering, and controlling.” 

(Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, p. 386-7)

Let’s go back to the four parenting styles I mentioned at the beginning, which we can summarize as follows:

Permissive Parents: “Anything goes.”

Authoritarian Parents: “Follow the rules.”

Neglectful Parents: “I don’t care what you do.”

Authoritative Parents: “My goal is to guide you.”

Mindful discipline is at the heart of authoritative parenting, because the focus is on helping kids grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

You can learn more about authoritative parenting and effective discipline in the following posts:

Four Parenting Styles, and How They Affect Kids

Strike While the Iron is Cold: The Art of Disciplining Your Young Child 

3 Problems with Parental Invalidation (and what to say instead)

Three Qualities of Healthy Boundary-Setting with Kids

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