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Time Out

Time Out

Many parents of young children regard “time outs” as an enlightened way to enforce good rules: The child who flouts clearly stated requirements for behavior, ignoring repeated warnings, is sent to his room for a few minutes or longer. At its best, this is done in an emotionally neutral way rather than in a wash of parental anger and reaction, and is intended to preempt persistent misconduct and give the errant child time to think things over and reassess the wisdom of the choice to refuse to cooperate, ignore established boundaries, and so on.

And yet, time outs have not been shown to be an effective way to encourage desired behaviors, such as cooperation, creative problem-solving, and respect for others. This makes sense when we consider that time outs disrupt the child’s natural immersion in the present. The effect is sudden, a kind of yanking away of the child’s reality. One moment, the boy is fighting with his sister over a toy; the next, he is in his room, alone, removed not only from the problem but from the opportunity to work out a solution with skillful parental guidance, empathy, and support. No matter what the parent’s intention may be in imposing a time out, the sudden isolation will be experienced by the child as punishment and worse, rejection—and these at a time when the child is most in need of closeness, understanding, and instruction. Young children who are acting out by being uncooperative or antisocial are caught up in a moment that their development has not equipped them to regulate. Their behavior is rightly viewed as a cry for help and support—perhaps in calming down, or in expressing what they’re feeling, or in discovering new ways to solve problems, and it is these things that are denied them in the isolation of a time out.

Time out at its best is enforced impersonally, without parental drama that will leave the child feeling guilty and rejected. But good parenting is never impersonal. We owe it to our young children to remember that time out is inherently counterproductive, and to stand ready to give them the best we have to give them at those times when they need our love and support the most. There is nothing indulgent or “liberal” in this. We are not talking about compromising on good rules and boundaries; we are simply saying that the most skillful enforcement of these rules and boundaries is done in a way that demonstrates closeness, connection, and guidance rather than isolation, rejection, and punishment. Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel, authors of the best-selling book The Whole Brain Child, have this to say on the subject:

On top of everything, time-outs are usually ineffective in accomplishing the goals of discipline: to change behavior and build skills. Parents may think that time-outs cause children to calm down and reflect on their behavior. But instead, time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them. When children concentrate on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair mom or dad, they miss out on an opportunity to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on. Setting clear limits while emphasizing collaboration, conversation, and respect gives kids a chance to practice being active, empathic decision makers who are empowered to figure things out on their own.

On the path of socialization, our children must leave the magical world of immeciacy and learn that there is cause and there is effect, that certain kinds of behavior will lead to painful consequences. But they cannot learn this in an emotional climate of isolation and relational pain. Good parenting requires that we socialize our children without giving them the sense that they have failed in some way by not already knowing what it is our job to teach them. In this sense, a “time in,” as Bryson and Siegel suggest, will be infinitely more effective and positive than even the most skillfully imposed time out.

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