Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

Not a happy end

Here’s another one of those controversial, confusing topics that even the experts don’t agree on. Some positive parenting experts (Dr. Sears, for one) encourages the use of time-outs, starting at the age of 18 months. Dr. Sears says, and I quote:

This all seems so sensible, but remember, children may not think logically until around age six. If you can’t sell your child on time-out, invoke your parental power. Give your child the message that he is going into time-out no matter what, so he might as well do it, get it over with, and get on with the day. For the child over five, add extra time for resistance: “Five extra minutes for protesting,” announces the referee. If the child still refuses, pull out your reserves: grounding and withdrawal of privileges (such as TV for the rest of the day or week)—whatever has worked in the past. Give the child a choice: “You can either stay in your room for ten minutes or be bored the rest of the day.”

Here’s my question. If children may not think logically until around age 6,then why use it on a child under 6 years old? Plus, what are you going to do when it’s not so easy to “invoke your parental power,” on, say, a 15-year-old, and you have to keep escalating the punishment? I can see where he’s going with this…you need to show your kids who’s boss. What about attachment, Mr. Attachment Parenting? Not that attached parents can’t give time-outs and be attached, they can (I did), but you do have to make a repair because most likely it did cause a disconnect. But I digress. He goes on to make this point:

Time-out gives your older child a chance to reflect on her deed, and it also gives you a chance to cool off and plan a strategy. While your child is in time-out, judge whether the misbehavior is a smallie that’s over and done with and needs no further discipline or a biggie that needs more intensive care. If it’s a biggie (she hurt another person), after giving her a few minutes to cool off, say something like: “I want you to think about what you did. How would you feel if your friend hurt you?” Some children know intuitively the mental exercises to go through during time-out, but many do not. This is not a time for preaching or haranguing, rather matter-of-factly tell your child how you expect her to spend the time-out period. The most lasting impression is made when the child realizes the consequences of his actions on his own. That’s self-discipline.

I can understand how a time-out could give an older child a chance to cool off, but I don’t know how much reflecting they’re doing. It all depends on the child’s termperament, I would think. A more timid or intuitive child may reflect; a strong willed child may stew. On the other hand, it seems to me there would be a more productive way of instilling self-discipline than by imposing parental control, which doesn’t so much come from “self,” but hey, I’m no doctor. Source.

On the other hand, we have this post, which happens to be one of my favorites and makes some very valid points, like these:

When you separate yourself and your child, you are instantly demonstrating to them that your relationship is not important. When your child is misbehaving is when they need you the most, and your relationship with them is vital. You need to listen and empathize and bring them close to tell them that you still love them, but want to understand what they are feeling. Children will open up very quickly and explain the root cause of their actions when they feel loved, and secure with their parents.

“Demonstrating that your relationship is not important” seems a bit much, doesn’t it? I can’t really argue with the rest of this one though. It goes on to read:

For children under age 4 to 5 years old, did you know that they don’t understand consequence at all? Their brains simply aren’t yet developed enough to understand cause and effect – so any kind of discipline similar to time-outs is being completely lost of them! Their left and right brains up to the age of 4 to 5 years old are essentially operating independently. They are unable to think logically, and with compassion or empathy. They are almost primarily governed by impulse and emotions and will act selfishly when playing with others. Concepts such as sharing are foreign to them, though they may mimic or parrot this kind of behaviour back to you if driven home repeatedly.

Now that is some food for thought, isn’t it? Neuroscience! Hooray!

But wait! Doesn’t all that love and empathy reward them for the misbehavior? Can you ever really go wrong with love? What would make you think so? Have you ever messed up? What did you need? Scolding? A lecture? Would that help? Or what about some empathy and understanding? Do teach your child appropriate behavior! Please do! But do it in a way that leaves her dignity intact and your relationship positive. You’ll need that close relationship!

Aletha Solter has this to say about time-outs in her article.

Even so, while spanking is on the wane in the United States, the withholding of love and attention has persisted as an acceptable means of control.

She also says:

According to many educators and psychologists, however, time-out is not as innocent as it seems and is, moreover, an emotionally harmful way to discipline children. In fact, the National Association for the Education of Young Children includes the use of time-out in a list of harmful disciplinary measures, along with physical punishment, criticizing, blaming, and shaming.

She drives it home with:

From a child’s point of view, time-out is definitely experienced as punishment. Who wants to be isolated from the group and totally ignored? It is quite likely that children view this form of isolation as abandonment and loss of love. And while parents are often careful to provide reassurances of their love and to distinguish between the child and the unruly behavior (“I love you, but you need to go to your room for five minutes because what you did is not acceptable”), their actions speak much louder than their words.

Children under the age of seven simply do not have the capability to process words in the same way that adults do. Concrete experience and perceptions of reality impact more strongly than language. Being isolated and ignored is interpreted as “Nobody wants to be with me right now. Therefore I must be bad and unlovable,” and no loving words, however well intended, can override this feeling of rejection.

Nothing is more frightening for a child than the withdrawal of love. Along with the fear come insecurity, anxiety, confusion, anger, resentment, and low self-esteem. Time-out can also cause embarrassment and humiliation, especially when used in the presence of other children. In the child’s realm of experience, time-out is nothing short of punitive.

Three views. One states they are needed; one that they are harmful, and one ranks time-outs right up there with spanking and abandonment.

If you’ve ever used time-outs, raise your hand. *Raises hand* Okay, put them down. I used to do it by the book. If my child hit or did a “biggie” he’d go to time-out for 1 minute per each year of age. I’d explain why and then do the “hugs and kisses” afterwards. Well, I tried. Time-outs were a complete failure here. He didn’t want to sit and it was a case of getting up and putting back, getting up and putting back, tears, screaming, my blood pressure rising, and a big ole power struggle, lose-lose situation. I then, however, moved to bedroom time, which we called “rest time” where he went alone to “cool down” and was allowed to play with whatever he wanted to in his room and could come out when he was “ready to be respectful.” It worked pretty well, actually.

When I did time-outs, I certainly didn’t feel like I was abandoning, isolating, shaming, or withdrawing my love. At least, it didn’t feel that way to me. How did it feel to my child, though? I’m not sure. Perhaps like Aletha described?

I don’t know that I’m ready to jump on the “isolation and love withdrawal” bandwagon, probably because I’m guilty of using time-outs myself before, but that feels a little extreme to me. Certainly time-outs *can* be extremely harmful if overused in a negative home. It’s not always so black and white though, is it? My completely non-professional, not-very-experienced mommy opinion is that an occasional time out for a biggie in an otherwise very loving, positive environment isn’t likely to do lasting harm. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it’s not likely to do any lasting good either. Given our wonderful neuroscience information and understanding that they don’t truly get it, especially under age 6, then it becomes more of a training technique than a teaching technique, doesn’t it? That isn’t horrible, but it’s not really optimal either, when you look at the big picture.

Let’s say Sally grabs Jenny’s doll. Jenny starts to scream. Mom immediately grabs Sally and puts her in a time-out spot for “not sharing” or “snatching” and sets the time for 3 minutes (because Sally is 3). What is Sally thinking in time-out? Mommy is mean. Mommy is mad at me. I really want that doll. Why should Jenny have the doll? I’m bad. Who knows what Sally is thinking? But she probably isn’t thinking “Boy, I wasn’t considering Jenny’s feelings at all when I took that doll. I was selfish and that was uncalled for. I must apologize to Jenny right now. I see the error of my ways.”

Now let’s say that Sally grabs Jenny’s doll but this time Mom goes over to Sally and says “You really want that doll.” (Acknowledging intent) Sally nods. Jenny was playing with that doll, and you took it. Look at Jenny’s face. She’s crying.” (Teaching emotional intelligence) “How can you help Jenny stop being sad?” (You’ve got her working on problem-solving skills) If she doesn’t come up with giving the doll back, and she probably won’t, then maybe say, “I think it would make her happy to have her doll back.” (Working on developing empathy here) If she doesn’t hand it over willingly, say “Would you like to hand it back to her, or shall I?” Either let her hand the doll back (Yay, Sally!) or gently take the doll and give it back to Jenny and apologize for Sally to model a sincere apology. Then redirect Sally to another toy.

Which scenario taught Sally the most?

Of course, there are alternatives to the traditional sit in a chair for x amount of minutes approach. There is the time-in, which is what I now use on occasion. Other variants of time-in include a cuddle corner or cool down spot where parent and child go together. Plus, let’s be honest, some kids like or need to be alone to calm down. If they prefer this, fine. The key things to take into consideration are:

1. What is the lesson you want to teach?

2. What is your child’s temperament?

3. What is your intent? A positive break from the action (like in a ballgame) or punishment?

FINAL ASSESSMENT: I’m not ready to put time-outs in the “evil” category just yet. I’m going to file them under “unnecessary.” Problem-solving, having the child be involved in righting the wrong, is always more a valuable lesson than sitting in a chair.


  • Hillary Posted 25 July 2011 13:04

    I'm interested by and agree with a lot of what you shared here. But, I have a really hard time buying that kids don't understand the concept of consequence at 3. Or, at least, my field work with my own 3 year-old clearly demonstrates to me that he does.

    I use time-outs, but very sparingly. I am mostly a talker and have a very communicative son who I can usually work things out with via conversation, even though people also say you can't reason with a 3 year old. I've found many times you can.

    But, there are times when I want to make clear just how unacceptable a behavior is. Mostly hitting, screaming in my ear, etc. . . I've probably given 10 timeouts over a year long period. Once I said this was the system and he would get one if he hit me, the hitting stopped. So, I'll be darned if he didn't understand the idea of action and consequence. He'll even ask, "If I throw this plate at you will I get a time out?" "Yes, that's just like hitting me, because the plate might hit me and that will hurt my body." "Oh." He puts it down.

    So, I struggle to buy the idea that it isn't understood. Also, my little guy is very attached to me and secure that he is loved, I never seem angry at him when giving him a timeout or discussing his behavior, so I just can't believe that it is injuring to him.

    But, the one thing I know about parenting is that every child-parent relationship is different. I cannot just across the board advocate for time-outs. I just know I can't think they are useless or harmful in my own house.

  • Miranda Posted 26 July 2011 9:49

    Great article. I'm having a problem with timeouts being effective on my 21mo old. I've only tried a handful of times but it usually results in him returning to the behavior several more times in a row after he is released from time out. Since they aren't working we've moved on but full sentence reasoning will eventually work but for now he isn't very verbal. What do you all do when a 21mo old who doesn't talk much is hitting repeatedly? It's for attention and only happens in his own home when others are there (i.e. I'm babysitting or a friend visits).

  • Schedule5 Posted 22 October 2011 7:14

    We have mostly stopped using timeouts with my nearly 3yo, and we stopped smacking quite a while ago. Not because of research, but because they simply didn't work to promote lasting behaviour change. Now, if he's being destructive / difficult, we typically pick him up and carry him with us, explaining that he can't be allowed to play on the floor unless he doesn't throw toys / stops hitting his sister etc. It works better than smacking, but I can see that I'll need to get some positive ideas from this site to improve my parenting. Thanks.

  • Anonymous Posted 16 November 2011 18:44

    Enjoyed this article as it brought up the pros and cons of this common practice.

    Like Hillary, we had a problem with hitting mama. First I tried emotion coaching, but we never found what was behind it–he would hit almost as a game, when he was happy, as if my cry of pain and surprise was funny. Then I tried reasoning. "Do I hit you?" I asked. "No!" he replied. "I don't hit you because I know it hurts you. We don't hurt people we love." When that didn't work and he escalated to kicking, hard, I finally said, "When you hurt me, I have to walk away because I have to protect myself from being hurt. I love you and I feel so sad to walk away from you." The first time I did it, there was a moment of silence before: "Mama, I need you!" then hugs and tears. This was not the prescribed two minutes of time-out. Simply me demonstrating that I would move away to protect myself. I actually stayed within sight of him the entire time. I think I've had to repeat the verbal explanation and start to move away a couple times since then but he understood. Now he only kicks or hits on the very rare occasion that he has a tantrum, which I don't consider the same thing since tantrums are generally due to a parenting error on my end and he just has more emotional discharge than he can handle.

    I wonder if Miranda's little one has outgrown his hitting stage. It's such a difficult one!

  • Angie Posted 11 February 2014 8:44

    I did an experiment one time on an adult, without their consent.. related to time-outs. I write a blog and we were debating and discussing the concept of using a timeout, ostracism, the physical pain that is felt in the body when we are emotionally isolated and/or ignored, etc.. This particular person was adamant that my perception of a timeout being damaging and harmful was entirely unfounded, illogical, and ridiculous even. So, in the process of our discussion, when we reached a point where she annoyed me and I didn't like the way the conversation was heading, instead of reasoning with her, rationally discussing our topic in a manner able to be comprehended equally for us both, I simply gave her a timeout. I was the moderator and administer of the conversation, therefore in control, and I chose to give her time on her own to figure out what she'd done to offend me, so that we could continue when she was ready to change her behavior.

    Guess what…

    It pissed her off. She didn't like the forced exclusion, the imposed inability to be heard and included, and she did not appreciate my decision to take such actions in what she felt was "against her", as if I should have the right to decide whether she should be included or put out for a time. In fact, when I did allow her to rejoin the conversation, after explaining to her my actions were not meant to offend her personally, but to demonstrate the situation in a very real and tangible manner, she explained that she felt it completely reprehensible and unbelievably rude that I would unilaterally impose a "time-out", when in the adult world, if discussions are becoming heated, any such "time-out" should be mutually agreed upon.

    I agreed with her.

    Then I asked her why adults were due so much a greater consideration and respect than a child.

  • Kate Posted 13 February 2014 9:18

    We do time ins. Our almost 4 year old gets close, one on one time when he's acting out. We rarely need to but its very effective when we do. Usually our time ins are cuddling in a quiet place and reading to him…he protests at first but finds his center when we all have a moment to reconnect. I just always remember to stand in his shoes before i react and remind myself that children tgat need love the most appear to "deserve " it the least.

  • Tracy Hill Posted 2 June 2015 11:27

    Oh my gosh… I LOVE this story! It really puts things in a different perspective, putting an adult in time-out like that. Thank you!

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