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Time-Outs: Do They Really Work?

More and more, I find myself questioning time-outs as an effective discipline strategy.

I know lots of loving parents who use these suspensions as their primary discipline technique. I’m not saying that they are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

Here are five reasons I’m not a fan of time-outs:

What we know about the brain

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection when they’ve made a mistake.

What I do want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way. So, instead of a time-out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior. If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully. If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime. That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

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False advertising and missed opportunities

What’s the point of or goal for a time-out? It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior. In my experience, time-outs frequently just make children more angry. And how often do you think kids use that time to reflect on their behavior? I’ve got news for you: The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy and problem-solving. Putting them in time-out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out. We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices. You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?” Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

Time-outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior

If the child is very young, you can just redirect behavior to something more appropriate, but if the child is old enough to listen, have a conversation to clearly explain what your expectations are, why he needs to make different choices, and what he can do instead. If he repeats the misbehavior, it’s a pretty good indicator that the child can’t make a good choice at that time. In that case, respond in a way that's directly and logically connected to the behavior. Using a broom to whack the TV? “You are showing me that you can’t make good choices with the broom, so I’ll put the broom away until you are ready to use it appropriately.”

Time-outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction. As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

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Time-outs are often used as punishment rather than a teaching tool

Even when parents have good intentions, time-outs are often used inappropriately. The idea behind them is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together. Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time-outs punitively. The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but rather to punish her for some misbehavior. The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

Kids need connection

Often, misbehavior is the result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling. She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Maybe she’s 3, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.” So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence. Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already. It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting her, a time-out—often called a “time-in”—can be helpful for children to help calm them down. But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time-out.

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