Never Mind the Critics, You Need Time Out

Lisa Garmezy, Psych Services

There’s a reason preschoolers get spanked more than any other age group. They love to experiment with independence and they don’t reason well. A swat on the tush—now that’s a clear message/

But physical discipline can’t be—well, shouldn’t be—your primary way of disciplining kids. Spanking is linked to emotional, behavioral and academic problems in children. It’s aggressive behavior that promotes more aggressive behavior.

Time-out was the go-to discipline method when I was raising kids, and it served me well. Now, respected parenting gurus such as Joanna Faber claim, “Time-outs don’t work.” Some opponents even fear that it’s harmful.

Just hold on. The American Psychological Association strongly disagrees.

The Case for the Time-Out Corner

Time-out, like spanking, gets criticized for not teaching kids how to handle the strong emotions that spark much of their unwanted behavior, such as tantrums and physical aggression. The popular book No-Drama Discipline says, “Effective discipline means that we’re not only stopping a bad behavior or promoting a good one, but also teaching skills and nurturing the connections in our children’s brains that will help them …handle themselves in the future.” Help your child set up a “calm-down corner” for example, with books or a favorite stuffed animal.

I can’t argue with the new emphasis on managing feelings and promoting empathy. Think about it: The ability to self-regulate, as it’s called, is typically the difference between a successful married cop and a divorced one under investigation.

Time-out’s simple objective is to interrupt and reduce the frequency of behaviors that have previously been defined as unacceptable. No, the technique doesn’t teach coping skills—or build vocabulary or accomplish other goals. Those lessons can be deferred to less volatile, more receptive moments.

In October 2019, psychology’s leading journal called time-out an “effective and positive discipline strategy that has the potential to enhance all aspects of the child’s development and mental health.” More than 50 years of research support the technique. Used correctly, time-out lets you be a calm, positive role model. It reaffirms limits and values. “We don’t hurt people” and “You can’t take other people’s stuff” are fine lessons.

The hand-wringers who worry that time-out may be harmful think it can communicate, “Your feelings are unacceptable,” or “I only love you when you’re well-behaved.” Not true. Time out reminds a child that certain behaviors are not tolerated. No judgment of his emotions is offered.

Besides, any means of establishing limits on kids always says, “I am big and in charge, and you’re not.” I think even gently raised children fear their parents’ anger at some level. We are the monsters they dream about.

A Simple Strategy

I used time-out the old-school way—from ages two to 10, one minute for each year of age. Kids get told to go to time-out in no more than 10 words and 10 seconds: “Kicking is not okay. Go to time out.”

Keeping kids in time-out can be tricky, but escalating threats help. I’m more or less serious. Consequences for leaving, such as the loss of screen time, should be made clear way in advance.

You are decreeing that a child must spend a brief time away from anything positive or fun, so the time-out corner has to be dull. No TV sounds in the background! Locations that aren’t boring enough will undermine results. So will paying attention to the child while he’s in time-out. Don’t pile on extra minutes: Children should have a chance to improve their behavior as soon as the brief time-out ends. That sends the message, “I know you’re capable of better things.”

Positive Parenting

Time-out isn’t meant to stand alone. One of our country’s leading experts in child behavior, Alan Kazdin, reminds parents to reinforce the good behavior they do want, and not just punish the not-so-good behavior they don’t want. I know you need to stay hyperfocused on bad behavior on the streets, but that should end with the shift. When you tune into what’s going well, you boost the parent-child relationship.

Praise and attention are powerful reinforcers. In the words of an experienced teacher – my mom – “Catch them being good.” You want your kids to play quietly? If so, pay attention when they are playing quietly, just for a few minutes, instead of checking your phone or emptying the dishwasher. Tell them it’s cool the way they’ve lined up the dinosaurs with the dolls, as if they are friends.

When praising, be specific: “Wow, a few minutes ago there were a couple of hundred Legos all over this floor and now every single one is back in the case! I’m impressed!” If you have trouble knowing what to say, usually describing what you see—the line of toys, the clean floor—works just fine.

Most of us need more tools, not fewer, to get us through the toughest job we’ll ever love. As child-rearing methods circle in and out of fashion, hang on to the classics that will work for you season after season.

If time-out doesn’t work for you, ask the Psychological Services staff for a free consultation. I’d recommend Faber’s How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen—just ignore the brief time-out critique–and Kazdin’s The Everyday Parenting Toolkit. For practical tips, go to www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/timeout.