Originally published November 2015
Is “time out” an effective method for disciplining children?
From infancy on, children need loving guidance that reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings.
Is “time out” a useful discipline tool, which lovingly offers a child guidance that reflects acceptance of his capabilities and sensitivity to his feelings? I have found that it can be, if approached and managed in a positive spirit. At the same time, its use is more limited than we might think.
I found time out effective as an interim measure in my own development as a mother. I started out as a traditional disciplinarian with a short fuse on my temper. Time out kept my son safe from the immediate effects of my bad moods and gave us both the opportunity to calm down.
Gradually, though, I came to recognize that I was the person needing more discipline. I embarked on a voyage of discovery that led me away from teaching through opposition and toward teaching through a cooperative relationship with my children. My youngest, as a pre-schooler, said, “When you get cross, it makes my brain spin.” The effect on him was physically obvious. I learned to calm myself down bit by bit, to recognize early warning signs that a situation was getting out of hand, and to deal with it before I got really angry.
My youngest, as a pre-schooler, said, “When you get cross, it makes my brain spin.”
Our first child had time out in his bedroom. When he began having nightmares—not, I think, directly related to the time out—it became important to us to preserve the bedroom as a place to feel safe and at ease, bringing about a next step on our quest for other approaches.
His two younger brothers were more sensitive and responded with genuine fear to isolation, which helped us further in our search for gentle discipline methods. I came to understand that, whether evident or not, most very young children are afraid of imposed isolation, even for a short time. Any kind of restraint, such as holding a door closed to prevent escape, is very frightening—often for the parents as much as the children! A frightened child is unlikely to learn anything positive.
We learned that time out was not an effective way to teach our children to manage their anger. Teaching requires presence: isolation doesn’t provide that. A defining moment for me was reading in Sidney D. Craig’s Raising Your Child, Not By Force But By Love about the parent who is hoping that the child sitting alone in his room is thinking: “I guess I was bad today … Now I’m being punished for what I did. I guess I shouldn’t be bad any more.” Unfortunately, however, the child’s thinking would sound a lot more like this: “No wonder I come home late. She’s always bugging me. Anyone with a mother like that would come home late.” As a child, I was sent to sit on the stairs when my parents thought I’d been naughty and I remembered having just these sort of thoughts! It seems likely that our children are not using the time out to reflect on and regret their behavior but to justify it and begin to feel misjudged and resentful.
Teaching requires presence: isolation doesn’t provide that.
Separation from a stressful situation can be helpful whatever the age of the child. Once I’d learned to dissociate my own emotional state from that of my children, I was better able to assist with any necessary separation from the situation—a sort of accompanied time out. I might simply take the child on my lap and hold him, firmly but not roughly, until he felt calm. If possible, we would go outside, preferably with the option of some physical outlet for aggression. At other times, I took the child to our bedroom. I found that being on his level, sitting on the floor, helped him calm more quickly and approach me more easily when he was ready. It took some time for me to learn to provide a calming presence without rewarding attention.
Because this kind of time out was wholly positive in nature, it also came without time limits. The focus was on the child and his needs: the timing was his to control. When did he feel ready to rejoin the rest of the family and behave appropriately to the others?
The focus was on the child and his needs: the timing was his to control.
When my sons were older, I occasionally took time out myself. I have been known to lock myself in the bathroom or bedroom until I felt more able to be with my family. This reinforced the lesson that time out is a mood-management strategy rather than a punishment. Learning is a lifelong activity: there is always room for personal improvement!
Eileen Harrison was accredited as a Leader in Great Britain in 1977. She lived for seven years in Germany and now lives in France. She and husband, Richard, have four adult sons and six grandchildren.