The Trouble With Time-Outs

Three year old Jason just took a toy from his younger brother, rudely grabbing it from him and making him cry. Dad, in a firm voice, says, "Jason, go to time out right now." "Ok," says Jason nonchalantly and saunters into his bedroom to wait for the requisite 10 minutes to pass until he can come back out into the living room. In another house, not too far away, a mother is also trying time out. But her daughter, Laurie, reacts differently from Jason. She bursts into angry tears and says, "I hate you. You can't make me go to time out, I am NOT going." And Mom feels helpless, because at 5 years old, she knows Laurie is right - Laurie is now too big for Mom to force into a time-out.

Whether your experience with time-outs matches one of the scenarios above, or if you experience something totally different - including cooperation when you give a time-out to your child - there are difficulties with this particular parenting technique.

Let's look at the historical role of time-outs, see why they're not the most effective tool for most parents, and examine some more effective strategies.

Time-outs originally began as an alternative to harsh punishment - particularly spanking. (As such, they have played an important role in parenting. Even today I would recommend them over physical discipline or screaming at your child.) In creating time-outs parenting experts believed that by removing a child from the situation, and requiring him to think about his misbehavior during that isolation, parents could help the child behave more positively. This might be true - IF you can get the child to think about what they did wrong. Unfortunately, we can't force a child to think about anything. Therefore, most children are going to spend their time-out waiting until it's over, plotting revenge, or feeling angry and vengeful. In addition, there comes a time when parents can no longer force their child to sit still anywhere. Some children, in fact, never comply with time-outs, even at ages when they can be physically manhandled into a chair or room, and they will pop out the minute the parent stops restraining them.

Time-outs are also problematic in that they often give the child a lot of attention for the misbehavior. Unless you have a very compliant child, the physical and verbal attention required on your part to give her a time-out actually reinforces the very behavior you're trying to eliminate. The child's thought might be something like, "Ok, I don't like the time-out, but look how much attention I get from Mommy! She picks me up, carries me to my room, and puts me in a chair. Then she talks to me some more. This might not be so bad after all!" Finally, because time-outs are not necessarily logically related to the misbehavior, it can take many, many trials before the child develops the understanding necessary to curb her behavior.

So what to do instead? Children respond better to consequences / punishments when they are LOGICALLY related to their misbehavior. By "respond better" I mean that not only is the consequence likely to stop the misbehavior as it's happening, but it's also more likely to make the child think about the consequences of their actions before they misbehave next time.

Let's take a look at some common misbehaviors for young children (5 and under) and apply some related or logical consequences:

Grabbing a toy from a sibling = losing the privilege of playing with that toy for a period of time

Hitting, biting, or hurting Mom or Dad = Mom or Dad leaving the room and isolating her/ himself for a period of time (I call this a "parental time out" which more reasonably mimics what happens logically if a person hits someone else - the person being hit leaves. In addition, it does not give any more attention than necessary to the child during the consequence, and the parent can enact it abruptly to make a more effective point.)

Throwing something = the object is taken away for a while

Dumping food on the floor = the meal is over

Climbing on the table = not playing in that room for a while

Although there are many other things young children can come up with to challenge their parents, this list will at least give you an idea of how consequences can be logically related to misbehavior, as opposed to using time-outs as general punishment.

Three things that will make this type of consequence even more effective for young children:

* Trying again. Allow your child a chance to try again. This develops responsibility. The rule of thumb is that the younger the child, the sooner they can try again. One woman with a twelve-month-old took his Cheerios away each time he dumped them on the floor. She let him try again in 30 seconds. It took about 5 tries but after that the child ate his Cheerios one-by-one, and no longer dumped them.

* Consistency and Action. Nothing works if you're not consistent. It's important to pick one behavior to concentrate on initially, and really follow through with the consequence each and every time the child misbehaves. If all your child hears is talk and no action, your plan will fail.

* Choices. The more often you give your child a verbal choice, the better. For example, if your child picks up a toy to throw, say "You have a choice. You can either put that down or I'll take it away, you decide." This gives your child a chance to think things through and make a responsible decision. If your child bites you, stand up and as you're walking away say "You just chose to have me leave the room. I don't stay around people who bite." Close yourself in another room, and when your child follows and pounds on the door (as most children will do) say, "You'll have a chance to try again in ____ minute(s). I'm sure that you'll choose NOT to bite me next time."

When we maintain respect and teach our children to logically connect consequences with particular actions, we become more effective parents. In addition, we create more responsible children.