The Time-Out Myth: Why You're Probably Doing it Wrong, and How to do it Right!

Time-outs can be so much more effective if you use them the right way, learn how here!

For many years, the time out has been the favorite go-to punishment for many families trying to teach good behavior to their little beauties. In my work with parents, however, I can easily say that the results are mixed at best. Some kids respond to it well, not liking the sudden halt in their lifestyle and quickly learning that this will happen every time s/he misbehaves.

Yet for many, the strong-willed child can corrupt the punishment through tantrums, whining, ‘escape’, delay, or attempts at reasoning with the parent. Or, they might simply understand that this is a timed penalty and they will be free to return to their behavior shortly, thereby negating the ‘sting’ of the punishment.

All in all, I am not in favor of the time out punishment and there is a simple reason why:

Time-Out is not a punishment!

...nor was it ever intended to be. The technique was developed in the late 50’s and was (and is) purely intended as a way to remove the child from whatever gratification they were getting from their bad behavior. Punishment, by contrast means to apply a negative event as a deterrent to the behavior. Semantics, right? Wrong. This difference ends up meaning a lot. Time-outs CAN be effective at calming your child down, but it doesn’t work too well if you use it for a punishment.

The most effective negative consequences, and positive ones, have to do with work, or play, respectively. A penalty that allows the child to do something to earn their way back into a fun day will be far more effective than a time-out could ever be. If you are short on ideas, housework is a good option as a punishment. If they are really little, picking up toys, straightening the family’s mess, or organizing a shelf can do the trick. I’ll write more on effective punishments in the next blog (hint: it's more about building egos than breaking wills).

So here’s how a good use of time-out can de-stress your life and make you a more effective kid wrangler:

Sammy, a 7-year-old, is playing too rough with his little brother. You give Sammy a warning to play nice and he acts better momentarily, but soon returns to the shoving and annoying. Sammy is hyping himself up with his brother’s reactions to his taunting play. You tell him, “Sammy hun, I warned you, go spent some time on the stairs,” your designated time out spot. The stairs provide some seclusion from the stimulating living room. Sammy cannot leave the stairs until YOU believe he has calmed down, and Sammy knows this by now so he works to get off the stairs as soon as possible by being quiet and acting calm. Once he does, you come to him and say, “I’ve told you to have fun with your brother by treating him nice when you play. Do you remember? (Sammy nods). OK, pay it back by going upstairs and picking up some of your brother’s room.” Sammy rolls his eyes, but knows you won’t let him continue with his day until he does as you ask so goes and cleans his brother’s room. After a quick peak to make sure he did as he was told, you get on your knees and grab him up into a big hug. “That was very honorable of you, Sammy. I am proud you made up for your mistake. Now go have fun with your brother!” 

Notice the time out was only intended as a “calmer-downer”. Its true intent is to get your child to the point where he can listen and respond effectively instead of on the adrenaline-fueled autopilot I’m sure you remember from your own youth.  Also note it did not have a ‘time limit’, but rather an objective to be met (calming down), which was achievable either immediately or as long as Sammy needed.  One more thing to note: Sammy’s parent DID NOT ACT ANGRY. I will say this in almost every post: Anger is unnecessary in parenting.

Now, of course Sammy seems to be an ideal troublemaker, but this story was intended to help you see the true meaning of a time-out. I would love to hear your ‘additions’ from your own experience that might make this harder than it sounds here. And I will gladly respond to your situation with the tweaks necessary for your family.

Good luck, and love them kiddies up!

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Natasha April 13, 2012 at 12:45 PM
At what ag do you believe this should start?
Natasha April 13, 2012 at 12:46 PM
I have 18mnth old twins and wonder what is the best way to discipline for throwing food, etc.
Dr.Kevin Brennan April 13, 2012 at 03:25 PM
Generally between crawling and about 2 years old, there's really no such thing as disciplining. Time outs are pretty useless during this stage. But there is plenty you can do. See my reply to your next comment.
Dr.Kevin Brennan April 13, 2012 at 03:34 PM
As I said, there's plenty you can do. First off, emotionally ignoring the behavior will help stop any connection to food throwing as "fun" or "attention seeking". You can firmly (but NOT angrily) say "no" when she does it, and keep on with your feeding as usual. Making it less of a big deal will help, but remember: s/he doesn't know its "wrong", that concept is unknown to an 18 month old. Also, lots of encouragement and praise for eating the food (rather than throwing) will make your toddler want to get your good attention more. So: 1) praise him/her for eating well. 2) firm "no" for throwing. 3) emotional ignoring: don't show frustration or eye-rolling.


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