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Nation Pushes Back Against Supernanny's Timeouts

I was excited last winter when I heard that Supernanny Jo Frost would be visiting the Netherlands to film her television show. Although I would never consider putting myself on TV in such a context, I have watched the show and found her manner and approach at times insightful and hopeful.

But controversy quickly rose across the country as the first episode of "Nanny On Tour" aired three weeks ago. Child development specialist Mariëlle Beckers watched from her home in Amsterdam, and what she saw made her angry.

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The episode featured Roelina, the recently divorced mother of a 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter. The mother was overwhelmed, perhaps even depressed, and her son was refusing to eat or sleep in his own bed.

In one scene, the mother smacks the boy—hard. In another, she puts him in the hallway alone and slams the door behind her. She needs help, clearly, but is Supernanny the solution?

It's not about the chair, the stairs or the minutes.

Beckers took to Twitter, denouncing Supernanny's approach, which included forcing the boy to cry himself to sleep in his own room with the light off. "He was probably afraid," she says. "And they just ignored his crying. He got so upset, hysterical, and then, in the end, he just stopped crying and went to sleep because he was exhausted."

It's reckless to promote this kind of solution, Beckers says. "There are so many people watching this show, good parents who are great at raising kids, but who watch and think, OK, maybe this is the way to go, it works. And I want to let people know there are better approaches."

The "timeout" in particular is a popular method used by Jo Frost and with most parents I know. It's a method that became in vogue about 30 years ago as a way to get parents to stop spanking their children as punishment. But Beckers, and many other researchers, say it's time for the timeout to go.

"Little children, up until 4 especially, quickly develop a sense of what they can expect from other people," Beckers says. "If you learn 'I scream and nobody comes,' it gives them a lot of stress, it's not good for the development. It can really be harmful for children long term."

The original concept of the timeout was not to physically remove your child for a set period of time—Supernanny recommends a minute per the age of the child—but to cease engaging with the child in order to allow the child to develop self-calming skills. It's not about the chair, the stairs or the minutes.

Most of the time, Beckers says, the timeout is really imposed because the parent is fed up and needs a break.

British child psychologist Penelope Leach says the time out has been over-codified. "A time-out is meant to give a child a break from a situation that has overwhelmed him into unacceptable behavior. The sooner the child can get back in charge of his emotions and join the rest of his family, the better. If that turns out to be 45 seconds or even less, that's fine. And please, don't use a special time-out chair that is only meant to shame a child."

In the Netherlands, Beckers' tweet launched a #stopjofrost movement on Twitter, which resulted in the counter movement, #gojofrost. Both camps seem to agree that children need boundaries and rules but disagree on what is the healthiest way to create these.

Most of the time, Beckers says, the timeout is really imposed because the parent is fed up and needs a break. And that is sometimes a good idea, especially if you feel you might lose your temper. But, Beckers says, don't make it a punishment, make it an exercise in regaining calm.

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"Give them a space where they feel comfortable," Beckers says. "Give them something to read or something to play with. If they feel really agitated, they can go to a comfortable place, they can calm down. It's still a timeout—time away from each other— but it's a solution and not a punishment."

Where do you stand on the time out question?

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Photo by Dan Iggers

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