I smile now, reflecting on my futile attempts to use time out with my headstrong and persistent 3-year-old. I would say, “Time out,” and he would ask, “What is my consequence?” This required me to think on my feet, usually making some lame attempt like no screen time today. He would ponder the proposal and then decide whether it was worth it to him to continue with the behavior in question rather than comply. When he’d up the ante, I’d quickly have to make a choice between giving in or escalating. This was not good parenting and I knew it, but I had no better ideas. Thankfully, I found time in my busy schedule for PEP, where I found much better parenting tools.
This week I read an article in The Washington Post, Timeouts get a bad rap, but they work — when used correctly. Fifteen years after my experiences with my 3-year-old, those feelings around time out came rushing back. I felt exhausted just reading the article: so much control, so much required obedience, so many “commands” for “behavior management.” The focus with time out is on “How do I make the behavior stop?” when we are much better served to place the focus on “How can I help my child thrive?” Here are three problems that we see with time out:
1. Time out can seem to be effective, but it works only in the short term and only if there’s external enforcement. It’s much like a speed camera, where people will comply in front of the camera only to zoom well beyond the speed limit once out of the camera’s view. We want our kids thinking for themselves and regulating themselves all the time, not just when they think they might get caught.
2. As parents we’re trying to raise children who can form their own opinions and make independent decisions, not kids that simply comply. We want our children to develop their own internal guidance so that, as teens, when pressured by the offer of drugs or alcohol or sex, they will be more likely to make good choices for themselves and to feel empowered to say, “No thank you.” They learn these skills not from being obedient but from testing the boundaries of life and understanding how to navigate them. They learn this best from us. They need us to give them room to push and to teach them how to recognize and respectfully speak up for what they need. This – as opposed to demanding compliance – is the real and very important work of parenting.
3. Finally, and especially with strong-willed kids like mine, time outs lead to power struggles, which escalate the conflict. The article’s author suggests that, when a child refuses to go to time out, “You need a moderate backup consequence that is more of a pain for your child than going to timeout for three minutes. For example, you might say, ‘If you don’t sit in timeout, you will lose bike privileges until tomorrow.’”
Let’s look at how this might play out. Let’s say the original misbehavior was drawing directly on the kitchen table. This resulted in a time out. The child refused to go. Now, applying the proposed backup consequence, the parent tells the young artist that screen privileges are revoked for the day. The parent now must enforce the backup consequence (and should brace for a nearly constant barrage of “Why can’t I have my screen time? That’s not fair!”). What happens if he starts watching the iPad over his sister’s shoulder, or it’s family movie night and everyone is really looking forward to it? Does the no-screen-time punishment get rewritten or canceled because of movie night? Is there another punishment for not following the first punishment by looking over his sister’s shoulder? And, what if he continues to draw on the table and refuses to go to time out again, so there has to be yet another backup consequence? Trying to control the behavior of another human is exhausting and nearly impossible and lacks the respect that all people, including our children, deserve.
So what’s a parent to do when confronted with problem behavior? First, consider the acronym H.A.L.T. and ask yourself, is my child Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? The solution might be as simple as a snack, a nap or spending a bit of time to really listen to your child and understand what’s going on. If none of those seem to fit, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, psychotherapist and co-author of No Drama Discipline, advises that, when your child is behaving in a manner that seems unacceptable, it could simply be a clue to parents that more training is needed. In her article Time-Outs Are Hurting Your Child, Payne Bryson says, “Discipline is about teaching – not about punishment – and finding ways to teach children appropriate behavior is essential to healthy development.” Whether it’s hitting a sibling or damaging property or being disrespectful – they’re all signs our child may need more training (and likely more parent-child connection). It’s not a problem to squelch, it’s an opportunity to parent!
So when we find our child creating a masterpiece in the kitchen, we can use training to deftly navigate the situation. “Drawing on the table is not a choice. Would you prefer to draw on paper or at your easel?” Then use this opportunity to train your child how to clean the crayon from the table before he fetches paper or an easel to continue his work. From this the child learns how to clean up his own messes and how to live in the household in a way that is acceptable to those around him, and he practices listening to his own inner voice. Together, parent and child are problem solving, connecting and working respectfully together.
If you are looking to find better options for training and discipline, consider PEP’s 4-week online Encouragement master class. It is full of incredibly useful tools to connect with your child and decrease power struggles at home.