Time-outs are now the standard discipline for little kids. It is a new religion among child psychologists: nothing works better than the time-out, and certainly not traditional punishment! Now before you put me in the cruel and stodgy camp, let me make one thing clear:

I am for Time-outs.

BUT. I am not for time-outs as the catch-all solution that experts say it is. Let me explain:

Time-outs are basically a brief period of isolation that allows a child some space to get themselves together. Some moms use a Naughty Chair, corner, staircase, or the kid’s room. But mark my words, timeout is not discipline. Time-outs don’t TEACH a child anything. They are a passive form of instruction, not an active one. In order for a time-out to work, it has to be applied at the appropriate time.

Think about getting a time-out yourself—when does some time alone benefit you? If your emotions are out of control, like you don’t know how to feel or you feel too angry, sad, etc., then having some isolation time can help. You can reintegrate—breathe, relax, think, even have a good cry. But does having a time-out work when you need answers? Something else to do? Or an issue to talk out? Actually, during some of these times being alone can make you madder. Now imagine that someone else is ORDERING you to be by yourself, and you’ve got the potential for rage. Or, if you are a more controlled type, bitterness.

I am convinced that children are not much different than adults in this capacity. They can begin harboring resentment at us or the rules when they get time-out, even as young as two years old. Watch a youngster’s face when you get upset and send him to his room. Even if you manage to do it out of love instead of anger, do you still see the face? Rejected, bitter, upset… that’s the same face you’ll see when they’re ten. The reason is because they don’t know how to use that time alone to their advantage.

Surely, time-outs can be good if a child is overwhelmed, overstimulated, or confused. Sometimes too much is going on and they don’t know what to think or otherwise just need a break. Time alone can help them can gather their thoughts, take stock of what went wrong, and what they need to do about it. With your help, they get up with a plan. But again, if they’re just mad about what went on, getting alone time often permits thoughts to escalate.  Doesn’t this happen to you?  You start justifying yourself, making a case, and storing up for the explosive conflict to come. You rehearse what you’re going to say, but you definitely don’t change your mind and decide you’re in the wrong. At least, not usually.

The same is true for little kids. Little kids, especially ages 2-4, get angry a lot. Not angry in an adult, wrathful, threatening way. But just basic upsetness at you, the rules, the situation, the toy, the world. And they have limited ability to help themselves. Their emotions are strong, quick, and usually uncontrolled. They are typically unable to get a hold of themselves and come up with a reasonable plan on their own. They need you to do it for them. And the younger they are, the less they understand so the more you have to help them through their feelings and any possible solutions. So a time-out when they’re naughty is usually not helpful. They just stew or forget.

With a 1,2,4,and 5 year old in my house, here are some times that I have observed time-outs being helpful:
–during a violent temper tantrum: when older toddlers are deep in the throes and lost control, being isolated briefly (like in a playpen) can help them vent safely. When they’ve vented, they’re usually more ready to hear whatever you want to say. Also, you have time to stay calm and make a plan. (A couple years ago, the lady in an apartment above mine admitted to actually LAYING on her four-year old to stop her violent tantrums! I’d advise against this.)

hurt feelings: a preschooler who is upset at a sibling, parent, or friend can benefit from some personal space when he or she is whiny. They can usually talk to you about the situation without crying once they’ve sat for a couple minutes. Or sometimes they’ve let the situation go on their own, ready to play again. This gives liberty and teaches self-control without shaming or overinvolvement.

-unreadiness: a toddler or preschooler who is not ready to face life because he or she is more sensitive, tired, or whatever, can benefit from a couple minutes by themselves in a chair. When they’re ready (to eat, to move, to go out), they can get down by themselves. This teaches initiative and self-recognition. I usually make the criteria for getting down to have a smile or “happy heart.” When their faces and hearts are smiley, I know they are ready to face Mommy, siblings, life.  If they get down and the first thing they do is whine, it’s right back up and they get the picture.

–uncharacteristic naughtiness: When your child does something very uncharacteristic of their normal behavior, like throw something at somebody, it usually means something unique occurred to hurt their feelings or provoke them. While not allowing the time-out to substitute for consequences and restitution, a couple minutes in timeout can help them get a break from the situation. Then you can talk to them about what was going on and decide whether they are allowed to go back.

When I think about it, most of the times my kids get sent to a time-out, it is for whining and complaining. I simply can’t deal with them when they’re like that, unless it is a very concrete thing they need (their zipper is stuck, they lost a lego, etc.). There is no reason why a 3 or 4 year old, an even a 2 year old if he is verbal, cannot be encouraged to use words and a normal voice when they are explaining themselves. Rational people can implement rational behavior; emotional people are not ready for your solutions.

But a lot of moms I know use the Time-out as their main discipline. Instead of using limits, consequences, restitution, or appropriate punishment, they see the timeout as punishment. Time-out is only punishment if the crime was showing off. Then a timeout (isolation from other people) becomes discipline. But this is rare.

I am careful with the Time-out seat too. Our timeout place is simply an armchair in our front room. It is not a punishment place where they are removed from all human contact. They can hear and sometimes see whatever is going on, and they can call to me in an adjacent room. It is a comfortable chair where they can sit as long as they need, and where normal people also use it for normal reasons. These types of things are important because an ideal time-out place should facilitate the child re-integrating into life, which happens when they can see and hear what everyone else is doing (at least, a little). Their siblings aren’t allowed to talk to them or bother them while they’re in the chair, but the perpetrator is often persuaded by observing life’s activities to let go of the whininess. They don’t zone out like if they would if they were on a staircase, they don’t get physically antsy as if they were in a corner or hard chair, and they don’t get to do other fun things or forget like if they were banished to their room. They simply sit and are reminded of life until they are ready. Almost always, they have to check in with me to give me a status update when they get up, before they rejoin. That way, we can have a talk and work out solutions/strategies if necessary.

So I guess my concluding point is: time-outs have their place, especially for the preschool and kindergarten age. But they DO NOT HELP DISOBEDIENCE. They don’t prevent it, I mean. No child will be motivated to reverse their current bad behavior by threatening a timeout. Nor will a child think twice about not doing something bad by remembering that they will be put in timeout afterwards. Nor should that be the point. The point should be a safe place to get emotional distance from a situation that requires it. The point should be regrouping. Don’t allow the timeout to substitute for explanation, instruction, and consequences. These all are part of the child learning to consider their behavior/attitude, and rethink their habits. If the child is ritually doing something wrong, like making a mess, being mean to somebody, or getting into things they shouldn’t, time alone is not going to fix that. Only a consequence—something that fits the crime: a limit, removal from situation, removal of privilege—will fix that. Don’t let experts or Nanny Diaries convince you otherwise.


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