Time Out

No parenting website would be complete without addressing the topic of Time Out.  Time out is a popular parenting tool, and can be used effectively, but it’s an ill-defined concept.  Your version of time out could be different than mine or anyone else’s, so I’ll start with some clarification.  One use of time out is as a break.  In this sense it is not a punishment or a sign of misbehavior necessarily, simply a neutral, unemotional separation.  If two children are having a hard time getting along you might see the need for a little break from each other and suggest a time out.  The children can go to different rooms and play something else for a specified or unspecified amount of time.  If two or more children are arguing over a toy and can’t find a good solution using their words, the toy might have to have a time out and be put away somewhere for a while.  Even moms can have time outs in this sense: a short period of time to be in your room alone. When interrupted you can explain to your children, “Mom needs a break for just a little bit, a time out.”

The more common usage, however, is time out as a punishment.  Parents know that spanking is no longer an acceptable general-use punishment, and they want something that they can hold over the child to elicit cooperation.  The problem with punishment is the more you use it the less effective it is.  The child may be afraid of the punishment in the beginning and motivated by that fear to behave as you want them to. But after a few times of experiencing the punishment he will realize it’s not that bad, and the motivating effects will wear off.  Any kind of punishment (taking away privileges, grounding, time outs) needs to be used sparingly to be effective.  If this is your main tool, it’s going to work less and less over time.  Using the proactive principles described in this blog will be more effective in producing the desired behavior.

Another problem with punishments, including time out, is that often parents don’t actually follow through with them.  Saying you’re going to enforce some punishment and then not doing it is just giving the child permission to misbehave over and over again!  The child quickly realizes the punishment is not coming. Granted, it’s a hassle to follow through with your punishment.  It requires a lot of effort on your part, and it brings up a lot of emotions, such as anger and irritation.  It’s easier to threaten the punishment and *hope* the behavior improves so you won’t actually have to go through with it!  But, this style of parenting is less effective, of course.  This gets back to the idea of say fewer words when you’re angry or disciplining.  If you are not ready to enforce the consequence, don’t bring it up!  Just don’t say it.  Say something about how you want them to act; try to find positive behaviors to reinforce; but don’t threaten the punishment unless you absolutely intend to enforce it.

An example of this happened in our family recently.  My daughter had 5 friends sleep over for her 11th birthday party.  My husband and I knew it would be difficult to get them to go to sleep and not disturb us in the night.  He went down to see if they had the blankets and pillows they needed.  He decided to “lay down the law.”  He told them if we had to come down to tell them to be quiet, we would separate them all to different rooms to sleep the rest of the night.  When he told me that, I was surprised.  I said, “You’re not seriously going to do that – separate them after only the first time we have to go tell them to go to sleep?!” We’d be the meanest parents on the block!  He thought for a minute and said he guessed he really didn’t intend to enforce that consequence.  I was a little disappointed that he (who is usually in complete agreement with my parenting principles) would threaten something he didn’t intend to do.  It didn’t matter that much in this one instance, but it shows how easy it is to come up with a scary sounding threat to manage behavior.  As parents we don’t always think through if the threat is reasonable, realistic, or even advantageous to us!  We’ve all had that sinking realization that the punishment we just gave our child was really a punishment to ourselves.  Think before you speak!  Ask yourself if a punishment is really necessary in this situation, and what it will be like for the child and you to carry out the punishment.

These same ideas apply to rewards (i.e., bribes).  Rewards are really just punishments turned around.  If you do this, you get a reward; but if you don’t do this, you don’t.  The withholding of the reward based on behavior is the same as a punishment.  To build enduring patterns of good behavior, children need to be motivated by internal rewards (the positive feelings they have inside knowing they are doing the right thing) more than external rewards (what someone is going to do or not do if they behave).  If they get used to being rewarded for each action, they will stop doing the behavior once the reward stops.

There are the occasional instances where rewards can be effective.  When you’re in a situation that doesn’t come up very often, such as flying on an airplane, rewards can be a great tool.  If the behavior is one you want her to do consistently (not hit her brother, take her plate to the sink, clean up her toys) rewards as motivation are not very helpful.  The effects will wear off over time.  But, if it’s a behavior that you just need them to do once (or once every long while), the short term benefits of rewards can be just the thing to get the child motivated.

Time out can be ONE of your parenting tools, if used only occasionally.  This is how I would suggest implementing this tool.  First, use the proactive tools that have been described in other posts (positive reinforcement, explain expectations, stay close to your child, stop and redirect).  If there is a situation where the child is misbehaving and these other forms of redirecting aren’t working, explain that if the behavior continues, the child will be put in time out.  Don’t ask, “Do you want to go to time out?”  It’s tempting to say that, but it’s a silly question with no good answer.   Say something like, “Please stop hitting your brother with that toy.  If you don’t stop you will have to go to time out for 3 minutes.” If she continues hitting her brother with the toy, you say, “You will need to go to time out.”  Some books say don’t start the time until the child stops crying; I think that sets you up for a control battle.  Some books say to have a discussion about the behavior during the time out; I think this is giving too much attention and reinforcement to the misbehavior.  When the time out is over you can give a short summary and explanation of what you expect: “You were in time out because you hit your brother with a toy after I asked you to stop.  I expect you to treat your brother kindly, and I expect you to follow my instructions.  Please say, ‘Okay, mommy.’”

If used sparingly, the time out will have a strong effect on the child and the behavior will improve afterwards.  If the misbehavior continues you may need to look at the larger situation.  Is the child tired or hungry or had enough of spending time with her brother?  Is there something else reinforcing the behavior (the attention or laughter of an older sibling)?  If you find yourself using time out often, review the posts on this blog and try to implement the other, more positive parenting principles.  It takes dedication and effort to parent in the proactive rather than reactive way, but your child’s behavior will improve and the improvement will not be just for the short-term.  He will have the internal motivation to succeed; he will have the desire to please you with his good behavior because of his positive relationship with you.

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