Recently I read an online article that claimed time-outs are ineffective and terrible for children. The author stated that time-out threatens a child’s sense of security because separation from parents is a child’s worst fear. It stated that time-outs create clingy children who believe their parents can’t handle them in their worst moments. I read this and I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. The article didn’t offer any suggestions for alternative discipline techniques. It did suggest reasoning with your child, which left me with the impression that the author did not actually have or know any small children. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to attempt to reason with a little kid who is not behaving well. I will sit back and laugh at you. You can reason with a preschooler who is well-rested, well-fed, perfectly healthy and in a cheerful frame of mind, but a misbehaving three-year-old is almost certainly none of the above. In general attempts to reason with a cranky and ill-behaved child will be met with tears, screams, arguments, running away, throwing things, hitting, kicking, biting or some combination of these charming actions.
Our society is very quick to criticize parents and tell us what to do. We are told on a regular basis that we are screwing up our most important job, particularly when it comes to discipline. Contradictory articles on how to discipline abound, while in restaurants and grocery stores across the country misbehavior is met with glares and any attempts at discipline are met with disapproving stares. Discipline is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. It’s no fun to be angry or disappointed in a misbehaving child. It’s hard not to see your child’s actions as a direct reflection of your skills and worth as a parent. When they mess up you feel like you’re the one who’s failed. It’s a direct hit to the ego, and it generally comes at a time when you are also tired, hungry, ill or frazzled yourself. Yet it is absolutely your job to civilize this adorable but self-centered little person. Parenting means teaching your child to wait, share, use manners, persist in the face of challenge, and consider other people’s feelings. Even if you don’t see those skills as morally good they are necessary for adult productivity.
Here’s what I would tell you about time-outs, both as a parent and as a professional in the field of human behavior. Time-outs don’t always create clingy children or breed separation anxiety. The general rule for time-out is 1 minute for every year of life. That means a three-year-old will get a three-minute time out. A really bad day in our house will mean perhaps 6 time-outs total. If you do the math, that works out to eighteen non-contiguous minutes of separation on a really tough discipline day. Most days hold many fewer time-outs, since an advantage of consistent discipline is doing less of it. Contrast that 18 minutes with the twelve hours a day our daughter is awake, much of which is spent interacting with one or both of her parents. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that she is a cheerful, creative, verbal, affectionate child who enjoys preschool, relates well to other adults, and isn’t stressed by being separated from my husband and I.
Time-outs should be sending a child the message that their behavior at that moment is unacceptable. My ability to handle my daughter’s poor behavior does vary, but it will always be higher than the tolerance her peers, teachers, future employers and spouse are likely to show. Whining, tantrums, interrupting, yelling, hitting and their adult derivatives are not socially or professionally acceptable. In fact, the entire point of time-out or any discipline is to let a child know that he or she is out of line with an unpleasant but safe consequence.
Time-out works really well for my daughter in particular because she inherited the temper that runs in my family. We have the same hot flash of anger that intensifies the more other people attempt to interfere. When I am deeply angry I need to be alone in order to calm down and my daughter is the same way. She was about 18 months old when she started telling us “leave me alone!” in the midst of a tantrum, and she was right. When we left her alone for 2 minutes she was able to calm down. When we tried to stay with her, talk to her, console her, reason with her or otherwise interfere with her she became increasingly angry and distressed. So we started leaving her alone. That’s contrary to most parenting wisdom and it took us a while to trust her and trust ourselves to do what she really needed. Now that she’s older she’s learning to take deep breaths to calm down so she can stay in a situation, but the retreat of a time-out is a skill I hope she hangs on to throughout her life.
The biggest problem with parenting articles like the one I read is that they over-generalize. “No spanking, ever!” or “Time-outs are terrible for children!” are two phrases I have read recently. They are probably true in some or even many cases. I imagine that some parents should never spank; that’s easy for me because I count myself among them. I get too angry too quickly sometimes to trust myself as a spanking parent. Some of my good friends spank their children in a very calm, deliberate way when needed. Their children are also happy, secure, creative and overall delightful young people. Time-outs are probably terrible for some children; I can imagine a very sensitive child being frightened or a parent using them too often or for too long. In that case wise parents would use a different consequence that suited their child. I have a friend who takes away privileges like reading a story or using a toy instead of time-outs and that works quite well for her children. Perhaps, despite my earlier mockery, there are some three-year-olds who listen to reason when upset and so their parents would appropriately reason with them. The point is, though, that my husband and I have to decide these things for our daughter and our family and you must decide them for yours. Beyond a few rules that I wish were common sense and common practice (don’t harm your child physically or emotionally, give your child plenty of love, be consistent with your rules, make sure your child has food, shelter, warm clothing, exercise and books) I can’t tell you what to do with your child. And I won’t. Your job is hard enough already.