Time-out is one of the most popular “discipline” methods parents use.
It works like this: a child does something that is ‘against the rules’ so the child’s parents punish the child by telling him/her to sit somewhere free of distractions for a set amount of time to “think” about what was wrong with the behaviour. After that period of time, the child will supposedly be remorseful and will also have learned his or her lesson.
But is time out effective discipline?
Some of the most popular parenting programs in Australia (and the world) are based on time-out. Psychologists and parenting experts almost universally claim that time-out is the most effective way to teach our kids. But does it really teach? And if so, what does it teach?
- Time-out teaches children that a parent’s love is conditional. Conditional love creates anxiety. Kids become frightened that their parent will not love them if they behave in a way that is ‘bad’. Very young children may fear parents will leave them. This drives a wedge into the parent/child relationship at the worst possible time – right when they need you most.
- Time-out teaches kids that their emotions and behaviours aren’t acceptable. And it’s true that sometimes behaviour may not be acceptable. But kid’s emotions are real and need to be respected – even the ones that are inconvenient. Emotions also need to be regulated! Forced time-out is not an effective way to help a child regulate his or her emotion. In fact, it’s counter-productive.
- In spite of the best intentions of the creator of the chair in the illustration above, time out teaches a child she is not worthy of parental love. This forcible isolation is really a form of love withdrawal that tells a child that she isn’t acceptable to her parents when she behaves a certain way.
In real terms, time out involves a person of higher power using that power to hand down a sentence of solitary confinement to an essentially powerless child.
Why Time-Out Belongs in the Naughty Corner
Most parents have used, or tried to use, time-out with their kids with varying levels of success. In some cases, behaviour may change. But most parents tell me they can never get it to “work”. The kids still play up. And parents spend even more time and effort trying to keep them in their naughty spot to enforce the time out!
Here’s a snapshot of what researchers have discovered about children who experience love withdrawal via the experience of time-out (forcible isolation/solitary confinement), courtesy of Alfie Kohn’s book,Unconditional Parenting:
- Children become distressed when their parents threaten to leave them, particularly when the threat is associated with a child’s challenging behaviour.
- Children will become highly compliant with a parent’s requests at the threat of love withdrawal.
- Time-out may be worse than other punishments despite there being no physical threat (or even any material threat). Thus, time-out is more devastating emotionally than other punishment because time-out poses the ultimate threat of abandonment. The parent may know when it will end but the very young child is totally dependent.
- The child who is repeatedly given time-out is far more likely to experience anxiety about love from parents. Time-out leaves kids in greater emotional distress for longer periods than does smacking!
- Kids who experience love withdrawal through the use of time-out and/or threats of abandonment (even for short periods) also typically have lower self-esteem, poorer emotional health, and are prone to increased challenging behaviour.
- being put in time-out models power as the way to solve conflict.
- it loses its effectiveness (older kids get excited about going to their room)!
- it undermines our relationship with our kids
- it distracts them from the issue in question
- it makes them cranky… and it keeps them focused only on themselves and how they can avoid consequences next time
What to do instead
What would you do if you were dealing with an adult who was challenging? Or someone else’s child? Would you send them to the ‘naughty chair’?
We seem to use different strategies in these situations – strategies like:
- lots of teaching, and
We’re usually much more patient with other people (and their kids) too. And research shows that while the short-term payoff can be less obvious, the long-term outcomes are far better. We work hard on preserving our relationships, being careful and considerate, and teaching.
I’m sure the naysayers and authoritarian types will disagree strongly. “Kids need discipline!” will be the cry. And I agree – kids do need discipline! They need us to teach them good ways to act. And the best teaching happens in relationships that are respectful, and in settings where kids feel safe and secure. Just like the kind of teaching we’d use on someone else, or their kids.
We need to send time-out to the naughty corner and focus on really teaching our children.