Is Time-Out a Waste of Time?

I have always wondered about giving a child time-out. How in the world do you enforce it? What does it mean to the child? Who is it for, the adult or the child? How long should it last? Where should it take place? If you place most children in their rooms these days, they either have something there to entertain them or they annoy their siblings. If you place the child where you can see her, won’t it drive you nuts having the child watching you for the length of the time-out? Anyway, most of us with children know about it and have either tried it or have been tempted to try it.

I tried time-out only once with my daughter, back when she was three. We had just moved from the Midwest to the South into a new home, and there were boxes to be unpacked everywhere.  Most of you can probably relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed when you move into a new place with limited time to unpack and you have an active curious young child who thinks singing quite loudly, yelling, running, dancing, going up and down the stairs, and whatever was quite amusing. Dealing with the noise, while trying to keep track of her, was getting to me. I was ready for a meltdown. At the very least, I thought, she should know not to run in the house. So, I reminded her that running in the house is not allowed. I told her to sit on the rocking chair near me for a 5 minute time-out.  (Sitting still has never been “her thing.”) I then continued to unpack.

Less than a few minutes later (if even that long) my daughter called out to me “I am going upstairs Mama,”  “I am going to my room Mama,” and in a few minutes she was back to her previous activities of singing and dancing and whatever around the house.  And, although now she was moving a tad slower (since I had reminded her about not running), she was still annoying the heck out of me as I was trying to keep an eye on her while I unpacked.

Now what could I do to keep her in time-out? Tie her down? Give her “the look.” Scare the heck out of her? Luckily, I had kept my sense of humor and realized this was pretty funny. (Forget the theory—laughter is actually the most helpful advice for bringing up children that I know.) Had she really learned anything from the time-out? And, what were my own motives for having imposed the time-out in the first place?  Was I trying to teach her a lesson, or just trying to buy myself some time for peace and quiet? My needs are important!  However, there is another person involved.  So, to get my needs met, I need to be clear and fair to the other person (in this case my daughter).

This scenario was enough to confirm my gut feeling that time-out did NOT make much sense.  In fact, as I think about it now, I actually think it can be more problematic than helpful. The more I sat and thought, (as I wrote this blog) the more I disliked the idea of time-out. Yes, again, as in my last blog post regarding spanking, I believe time-out is a fast fix that won’t last. However, I started debating with myself, was it as punitive as spanking?  Might it actually make the child more likely to have psychological problems later in life? Ignoring a child does NOT seem like a way to promote good psychological health, so I began researching the topic.

OK, I'm back. Over and over, the research results were the same: NO good came from time-out. Time-out, like spanking, is negative and has a significant potential to cause the child psychological problems in the future. For example, in Brain Child, a book by Payne Bryson, Ph.D and Siegel, M.D., they point out that while time-out is a popular recommendation from pediatricians, it has been shown to actually damage the structure of the brain! They discuss how in a brain scan, isolation can look the same as physical abuse. So, alone in the comer is not where I am placing any child for very long!

If you feel you have to use time-out, don’t abuse it

Now let’s not get carried away! Nothing is absolute, except don’t be absolute. I don’t think a child is going to be harmed if they have a short time-out. However, let’s face it, time-outs build up quickly! Often time-out seems arbitrary to the child, they have no idea why they are isolated.

So, if we’re going to have to use a time-out let’s not make it mean! Before the time out, take the time to explain to the child they are going to take a break because of a specific behavior. This way, the child isn’t wasting time wondering why she has been isolated. The child is given a chance to know what to stop and the time-out will make more sense to her (and the child gets a chance to control herself). Regarding the length of the time-out, the rule of thumb is one minute per year of age. So, if the child is four-years-old, then the time-out should be 4 minutes long. At the end of the time-out, since it was adult imposed, tell  the child again the reason for the time-out and reinforce what just occurred for the child.

Another option besides spanking and time-out:  Guiding

Instead of controlling your children, guide them. This does NOT mean a free-for all. Guidance involves setting clear, consistent limits that are based on understandable reasons.  This fosters independence and helps children feel good about themselves. Therefore, the child knows the adult is concerned, and not just angry, and the limit is purposeful.

Thus, for example, saying some combination of the following sentences may have been more informative to my daughter, and had a longer lasting impact:

  • “The steps are closed now. I need to be near you in the new house to feel safe.”
  • “Right now, my job is to get the kitchen ready for dinner.”
  • “Please use a softer voice inside the house.” (Model what you mean with your voice.)
  • “Here are some crayons and a box you can color with them.  You can turn the box into a dollhouse or a fire station or anything you want.”
  • “I know you’re curious about the new house.  We’ll explore it together when the timer goes off.” (Actually set a timer for 20 minutes or so.  If you’re near the kitchen, you can always use the microwave timer, but you’ll find it’s a good idea to have a portable timer available for other situations.)

The benefits of guidance

  1. Supports social and emotional development.
  2. It teaches the child. For example, it teaches them about cause and effect.
  3. It builds trust and respect between the child and adult.
  4. It builds self-reflection and independence.
  5. It builds confidence in the child.

The downside of punishment

  1. It does not build relationships.
  2. It may actually build resentment that leads to more negative behavior. The punisher may feel negative vibes or the child may feel frustrated.
  3. Children that are used to being controlled do not have a chance to learn to control themselves.
  4. The child just learns that they got in trouble: They don’t know the reason or the consequence doesn’t make any sense.  This may lead to the child trying to get away with the behavior when the adult isn’t looking.

A few hints for guidance

  • Avoid using the words No or Not or adding n’t (as in isn’t) to a word. Children have the marvelous ability to dismiss these and hear that they may do the very thing you’re telling them not to do.  For instance, instead of telling children not to run on the stairs, tell them that they need to walk slowly on the stairs so they can be safe.
  • Use statements are clear and short.
  • Give the child two choices for what they can do, instead of telling them what not to do.
    • Make the choices ones that the child can realistically expect to enjoy.
    • Older children will be able to handle more than two choices.
    • Children have tons of energy and need some time when they will be in motion. (You cannot expect most children to be happy spending a whole day doing nothing but coloring or other sedentary activities.)  Plan for when they will have an opportunity to use this energy.
    • Make sure your plan not only accommodates the child’s needs, but also your needs.

 Next time

What strategies do you use to ensure safety and get cooperation with your child(ren)? What about stickers? What about praise? Is it the way you want to treat her? Why or Why not? Let me know if you’d did something that worked. Do you have examples that didn’t work to share? (I sure have lots.)

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