Time Out for Time Out

by chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

“Jillian, if you don’t stop talking back to me, you’re going to sit in the time out area until you learn to respect me!”

“Roberta, you’re being naughty. Naughty girls have to sit in this naughty chair until they learn their lesson. I’ll tell you when it’s time to get out.”

“Rita, you’re supposed to be in time out. Get back in that chair and stay there quietly until your time is up. Now I have to reset the timer because you left the time out chair early.”

Adults use time outs with the best of intentions. They want a discipline technique that’s an option to sarcasm, ridiculing, yelling, or shaming. They prefer not to spank or use other forms of physical punishment to control their children. So they opt for using a time- out.

These adults believe that placing a child in time out will make him think about what he did wrong and learn not to do it any more. They believe that the child will stop hitting in frustration after having enough opportunities to sit and think about hitting. They believe he will learn to pick up his toys, stop throwing sand, and start using kind words because he sat in his bedroom long enough to figure out why he was there.

But what if these assumptions aren’t accurate? What if there are negative effects from using time out as it is being practiced today? What if it’s actually counterproductive to achieving the goal of raising responsible children? Perhaps it’s time to call time out on time out and examine it more closely.

Consider: As it is often practiced, time out is used for control. It is used as a threat. “If you don’t stop that, you’ll go to time out.” It is used to punish. “Okay, that’s it. You go to your room.” When you use time out in these ways you’re teaching children that those with the power have the right to control others.

Consider: Children being controlled by the threat of time out may indeed change their behavior. But when they do, the motivation to change is external. The child hasn’t been asked to think for herself or given the chance to internalize the need for a new behavior. Nor has she been taught any new behaviors. What she learns is to behave when the adult is near in fear of punishment. But she doesn’t behave when the adult is not present because she hasn’t learned to behave from the inside out. She is behaving only from the outside in.

Consider: When time out is used for punishment, it often creates resentment and encourages revenge fantasies as children direct their anger and blame at the parents. They scheme about how to get even rather than contemplate alternatives to the behavior that got them the negative consequence.

Consider: Many parents make it understood that their child is being sent to time out because he or she has been naughty or bad. When you send a child to a specific area because he was “naughty” and make that clear to him, you send a message to the child that he is bad, that he is naughty. This use of time out attacks the character of the child. It wounds the spirit and brands him as being that way.

Consider: Time out as it was originally designed was an attempt to give children time to cool down. It was to provide a safe space and time for a child to calm herself. Creating time and space for a child to calm down so she can think is the first step toward creating an inner authority that guides the child’s behavior.

Consider: A time out is something one takes or is given when one needs a break from their surroundings. A time out is what we need when we’re sad and want to be alone. It’s what we need when we’re hurt and don’t know what to say. A time out is what we need when we’re confused and don’t know what to do. A time out is where one goes to collect oneself, to reenergize and get ready to address the problem at hand.

Consider: Children need time to calm their minds and relax their bodies when they’re frustrated. They need a break from the world around them when they are yelling or angry. Children need an opportunity to get themselves ready to learn a new skill or face a problem. They need time to get back into a solution-seeking, problem-solving mode.

Consider: A time out is not to be used as the punishment piece of a discipline technique. It is the time a child needs to get into the right frame of mind so he or she can learn how to manage anger, curb aggression, or use a different set of words to express disappointment.

Consider: A child will only learn to manage his behavior when he is in the frame of mind that allows him to do so. Managing behavior, comparing possible outcomes, understanding consequences, choosing among options, and creating choices take place in the area of the brain called the frontal lobe. When your daughter is throwing a tantrum, she is not in her frontal lobe. Nor is your son using his frontal lobe when he’s yelling, “I hate you.”

It’s important for adults to recognize these behaviors and understand that children are not in an appropriate mindset from which to engage in learning a new skill, solving a problem, or understanding the cause and effect relationship of the choices they have made.

Consider: The role of the adult when a child is in the middle of a tantrum is to help the child pass through the emotional phase and move into a behavior management and problem-solving mode. When the child has made this transition, then and only then is the process of holding her accountable and teaching her how to do it differently next time appropriate.

Consider: Most parents allow children to return to the family group or resume their activity after they have stayed in time out for a specific amount of time. Time out used in this way becomes synonymous with “doing time.” Once you’ve served your sentence, you’re free to go about your business.

Consider: If time out is indeed used as a gift of time and space, it is the time after time out that becomes the most important. This is when you follow up by teaching a needed lesson, debriefing the previous scenario, and creating plans for next time. Use the time after time out to help your children learn to manage their behavior through the guidance and instruction you give them. They will be more receptive to suggestions on how to correct their behavior. They will feel more empowered and more confident in being able to manage their behavior in the future. They will come to see themselves as capable, responsible people.

If you want your child to see himself as a responsible and successful person, to learn to get along with the group (family), to build positive relationships with others, and to increase feelings of connectedness with you, stop using time out as a punishment. Use it as a positive interruption of an undesirable behavior so the child can calm himself and be receptive to the guidance, instruction, and lessons in accountability that follow.

Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman are the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose. Thomas and Chick are two of the world’s foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. For more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their websites today atwww.thomashaller.com  and www.chickmoorman.com.


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