The Tao of Time-Out

The other morning I watched as a parent cornered one of Molly’s teachers and asked, “So do you subscribe to that whole ‘time-out’ philosophy?” and she struggled to answer in a way that satisfied – not because one was wrong and the other was right, but because it often seems like when two people talk about “time-out” they might as well be speaking two completely different languages.

I don’t know when exactly “time-out” got such a bad rap, but I think a big part of the problem is that 99 percent of people who do “time-out” don’t do it right and 99 percent of people who don’t do it have only ever seen it done wrong. Most people who don’t believe in “that whole ‘time-out’ philosophy” have tried it out at some point – you know, the old,

“If you don’t stop that right now I’m putting you in time-out! DID YOU HEAR ME? That’s ONE! If I have to come over there, I’m going to…THAT’S TWO! I MEAN IT! DON’T MAKE ME GET TO THREE! I’m not kidding around! You are going in TIME-OUT, MISTER!! I TOLD YOU TO STOP! OKAY, THAT’S IT!! THREE!!! YOU GO AND SIT ON THAT TIME-OUT STEP RIGHT NOW!! You’re sitting there for five minutes because you didn’t…HEY, GET BACK ON THAT STEP! I TOLD YOU TO SIT DOWN! NOW THAT’S 10 MINUTES!! WHERE ARE YOU GOING? I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU TO SIT THERE!! NO TALKING!! DON’T MAKE FACES AT YOUR SISTER!! GET BACK ON THAT STEP RIGHT NOW! NOW YOU CAN SIT THERE FOR 10 MORE MINUTES!”

– and found that for some reason it didn’t work. We’ve all been there. The key to time-out is no different from any other discipline technique: Discipline techniques that work are those that are calm and consistent. Even spanking will be effective if it’s done within those parameters. I take issue philosophically with teaching children not to hit by hitting, but as long you consistently follow through, it will certainly change the behaviour that you want it to change.


©PicklesINK 2013

1-2-3 Magic devotes an entire chapter to the false notion or “wish” (which I think is a really interesting way of looking at it) that is behind why most discipline attempts that don’t work: The Little Adult Assumption.

The Little Adult Assumption is the belief that kids have hearts of gold and that they are basically reasonable and unselfish. they’re just smaller versions of grownups, in other words. and because they are little adults, this notion goes, whenever the youngsters are misbehaving or not cooperating, the problem must be that they don’t have enough information at their disposal to be able to do the right thing.

Imagine, for example, that your eight-year-old son is torturing his little sister for the fifteenth time since they got home from school. What should you do? If your boy is a little adult, you simply sit him down, calmly look him in the eye, and explain to him the three golden reasons why he shouldn’t  tease his sister. First of all, teasing hurts her. Second, it makes you mad at him. Third — and most important — how would he feel if someone treated him like that?

Your son looks you in the eye, his face brightening with insight, and he says, “Gee, I never looked at it like that before!” Then he stops bothering his sister for the rest of his life. (1-2-3 Magic, pp. 15-16)

Even well into adolescence and young adulthood, our brains are still developing and changing. Children are simply not capable of understanding or thinking rationally at the same level as adults. Part of our job as parents is give your children a safe space in which to express their feelings and opinions, but another very important part of our job is to teach our children how to act appropriately  – “I understand that you are very angry, but it is not okay to throw your toys, and there are consequences to that choice.”

The parent talking to Molly’s teacher said, “We do a lot of getting down to their level and talking to them.” 1-2-3 Magic explains that while one explanation can be appropriate – it could be that your child really did not have the necessary information to act appropriate – it’s attempts at repeated explanations that can lead to trouble, adding, interestingly, “too much parent talking irritates and distracts children” (p. 17). I can certainly see that – if I’m already feeling overwhelmed by a situation and consequently acting out, the last thing I need is for someone to get right in my face and talk at me! The teacher replied, “We use a lot of redirection, but then if we have to we remove the child from the situation.” Well, ladies and gentleman, in accepting this explanation that parent may not have realized it, but what that teacher described was…drum-roll please…a time-out!

I absolutely subscribe to “that whole ‘time-out’ philosophy.” It is one of the most important discipline tools I have as a parent. In a recent blog post, Alyson Schafer noted that the word “discipline” is derived from “disciple,” meaning to teach or guide. I see time-out as a tool for teaching as well as an important skill for my children to learn, and in fact part of that involves them seeing ME taking a time-out when I need to.

As I mentioned before, the two keys to effective discipline are consistency and calmness: Firstly, in order for any discipline technique to effect a change in behaviour, it must be consistent. This means that if you say, “If you don’t do/stop doing X, I am going to Y,” and the child doesn’t do/stop doing X, you HAVE TO do Y. If you don’t do Y EVERY SINGLE TIME, your child will actually not do/not stop doing X even MORE OFTEN than if you never did Y at all. In operant conditioning, this is called a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. In fairness to anti-time-out parent, as long as he/she is consistently “getting down to his level and talking” EVERY SINGLE TIME it will also eventually work to change the child’s behaviour – the only danger is that if the child interprets this as positive attention, it is possible that the change may not be the one the parent intends.

Second, in order for any discipline technique to work the way you want it to, it must be calm. 1-2-3 Magic calls the use of too much (negative) emotion in trying to discipline a “parental temper tantrum.” When you let your emotions get the better of you while trying to discipline, several things happen: a. You show your child that he or she has the power to cause you to lose control; b. You upset and frighten your child; and c. You probably aren’t applying your chosen discipline technique consistently.

It’s the combination of parental loss of emotional control (temper tantrum) and lack of consistency that derails most attempts at “that whole time-out philosophy.” Remember that whole, “I’m telling you, IF I GET TO THREE YOU ARE GETTING A TIME-OUT, MISTER!!”?

My goal in using time-outs is to teach my children that there are times in life when you become overwhelmed by a situation or by your surroundings, and a way to deal with that instead of “having a freak-out” is to briefly step away from the situation, calm yourself down and gather your thoughts, and then return. At this age, most of time I have to tell them when that time has come – “Molly, there is no yelling and throwing. You are going to sit out on the stair for 3 minutes because you yelled and threw your toys,” or “Ben, you need to calm down. You can go and take a time out in your room and look at books until you’re ready to stop yelling and whining,” – but my hope is that they start to recognize these times for themselves.

Just think how much simpler life would be if it were socially acceptable for us adults to say, “Could you excuse me? I’m going to take a moment to gather my thoughts.”

~ karyn

10 thoughts on “The Tao of Time-Out

  1. A-M-E-N! And thank you from teachers and soon-to-be-parents EVERYWHERE. Time-outs…when used properly, are brilliant.

    One additional note: the time limit needs to be appropriate. The number of times I’ve seen both teachers and parents give 10 minute time-outs to 4 or 5 year olds is ridiculous. Even the rule of “1 minute per year of the child’s life” can amount to a ridiculous amount of time after a while. You need to tell them how to spend the time in time-out as well…and you do that. Kudos! LOVE IT!

    • Awww, shanks, teacher-friends!! Re: Time limit – you’re absolutely right. That’s the one place where I don’t agree with 1-2-3 Magic – the line there is “That’s 3 – now take 5” as in minutes, and it also advocates sometimes adding time for the seriousness of the offense. I use the Supernanny model where you sit for X amount of time and I ignore behaviour that takes place on the step, but if you leave the step (or whatever) I return you silently and re-start the timer; when the timer goes off (I use the microwave), I come back and do the reminder of why you were there-apology-hug.

      I like the 1 minute per year of age as a rough guideline for kids who are following a normal developmental path, but there is definitely wiggle room. Time is relative, and toddlers and preschoolers have no sense of time anyway – my kids know they have to sit until the microwave beeps, and then I will come and finish the time-out . Sometimes I play it by ear: eg. if Molly is having a particularly hard time – she’s been making it to the 2-minute mark and then leaving the step, I’ll re-start the timer for 2 minutes (but not tell her that) so that she can experience “success” at completing the time-out, and she has no idea that it wasn’t actually 3 minutes – then the next time it happens, she has that success under her belt and will be more likely to be able to make it to 3 minutes the first time.

      I would guess that in a classroom setting you would have to set a lower time limit and have it equal across the board – as a teacher managing a full classroom, it would be very hard to enforce a 7 minute time-out while dealing with your other 20 students too!

  2. I feel for that teacher. I have a student who has some pretty serious behavioural issues and his parents are adamently opposed to time outs because they feel that a time out will damage his self-esteem (what?). This kid NEEDS time-outs because most of his negative behaviour is directed at other kids so separation from the group is one of the only things that works. I eventually got around it by lying. Any time I separate the student from the group now and asks if he is being given a time out I tell him no and call it something else. It works for him and now he can’t tattle to his parents on me. Lol. You are definitely right. Consistency and calmness are key to effectively using time-outs (although I have to say I lose my cool about a quarter of the time with my own kid).

    • heheheh…that’s exactly my point! Most people would say, “Oh, of course, that sounds like a good idea” if you describe it without using the words “time out.” I’ve heard of so many teachers who use “Alexander and the No-Good Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day” as a guide and set up an cozy “Australia” corner in the classroom that students can go to if they need to take a…*whisper* …time out…

      You’re not lying – You’re reframing!

  3. Thank you for writing about this! I have a toddler who’s starting to be really difficult behaviorally, and I’ve heard so many conflicting things about “time out.” I have no idea what to think. I do agree that being calm and consistent is key. But that’s the hardest point of dealing with any kid that is freaking out! It’s so hard to keep your own emotions in check during these times.

    • Oh my gosh, is it ever!! I have found that “practice makes perfect” when it comes to keeping calm – the more I am able to do it, the less hard it gets, but it definitely never gets easy!!

  4. I love this. Thank you.

    Here’s a question: What do you do when your child simply won’t do the time-out, no matter how calm and consistent you are about it? I try to anticipate my 4yo’s tantrums and head them off. But when she tantrums, she refuses to leave the “scene of the crime” to hang out in her room and calm down. She just wants to cry and cling to me.

    Do you think time-outs just aren’t effective with my kiddo? Should I just hold and cuddle her? It feels like when I do, I’m rewarding her for her behavior, though.

    • Ooh, that is tough. Ben will do that too. I would say it depends on what caused the tantrum and therefore what the overriding emotion is.

      If she’s mad because you’re setting a limit or asking her to do something she doesn’t want to do, I would continue with the “naughty step” technique, as many times as it takes (in one of my replies above I talked about the time limit piece and how you can flex it a bit if it’s particularly difficult time-out, so if she settles down on the “step” you could end it early before she melts down again, without telling her, so that she gets the positive reinforcement of completing it successfully).

      If it’s a meltdown because of being sad/overwhelmed by something, you could cuddle her but also explain that you won’t be able to do anything to solve the problem until she’s calm enough to speak normally so you can understand her – and then just like with everything else consistency is still the key, so if she tries to yell or whine you repeat you message, “I can’t understand you until you stop crying. We will talk about it when you stop crying.”

      You could also offer a choice – “I can see that you’re upset and I want to help, but I can’t do anything until you are finished being upset and are ready to talk about it. I need to make dinner, so you can sit at the table and watch me, or you could go up to your room and look at books until you’re calmed down. Which would you like to do?”

      And then there’s always the parental timeout option – If you need to, you can leave her where she is and take a break in the bathroom or on the couch or wherever – chances are she’ll come looking for you and you can explain “Well, it was too loud in there for me with you yelling and crying, so I came here for some quiet. If you’re all finished yelling and crying, you’re welcome to join me for a cuddle.”

      I talk (or type) a good game of course but do I always manage to put it into practice? Not a chance! But the more you do it, the easier it gets for you and the kids.

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