Daily Archives: September 29, 2011

talk to me about timeouts

(There is a poll embedded at the beginning of this post. If you’re on a reader, click through!)

I will begin by saying that I have, and still do on occasion, use timeouts with our son. In fact, my wife and I have used them with regularity for one issue in particular, but I don’t think either of us finds them particularly effective. They just seemed to be the only answer we had. I don’t think we’re alone in this.

I grew up with the occasional spanking in my house, with “go to your room” and later with grounding or removal of privileges (my bedroom door when I got caught by the police after sneaking out in the middle of the night). J’s experienced much more severe physical “discipline.” Neither of us would ever even dream of laying a hand on BG, and I will not hesitate to say that this is one issue on which I do judge other parents. Causing a child physical pain is an archaic, ineffective, and ultimately harmful way of disciplining a child.

And since spanking and hitting with wooden spoons and rapping of knuckles has finally gone out of fashion, the majority of parenting lore would have us believe that we’ve been left with just one tool: the timeout. There are certainly different variations on this: standing in a corner, going to one’s room, sitting in a timeout chair (why don’t we have dunce caps anymore though–that could be an interesting variation). There are different rules about how long to leave kids in timeout or how silent they have to be or what they have to say to get out, but it’s all pretty much the same. A child commits an “undesirable” behavior, and the child is either sent to or taken to timeout where the child stays until the child has served his/her time or the parent or child has calmed down.

I’ll tell you my own reasoning for using this: we sometimes simply need to remove BG from a situation where he has decided to test really serious boundaries (i.e. harming the animals), and he has to be removed because otherwise, he continues to chase after them in an effort to harm them again. In these moments, my wife and I also need a moment to calm down because seeing our son with a maniacal look on his face while he uses all of his might to pull the cat across the kitchen by the tail makes us both very upset (and makes us scared that we’re raising the next George W. Bush). So we place him in his room, close the door, and say “No pulling the cats’ tails. Never ever ever!” (or something like that). And we walk out for a minute or two. He is typically not crying, and he usually just busies himself in his room or his bed until we “release” him or he decides to come out. We usually ask him why he had a timeout, and he always answers spot-on: “Pierre’s tail” or “Bite Mommy.” And then we ask him for an empty apology (because we know full well he doesn’t mean it at this age), and we all hug make up.

But none of this really works. Lately, instead of sending BG to his room to chill out, we do this “timeout right here” thing, where I just hold him in my arms for thirty seconds to a minute, and we all calm down. Sometimes we talk about the event that led to the timeoutrighthere while he sits with me. We have a variation of this at the table where if he is throwing food or putting his feet on the table, we just scoot him away from the table for a moment to reset. We’re all still there, still interacting with him; he just doesn’t have access. While I’m not sure if we’re having more success with this, it is decidedly less punitive and more literally a “Let’s take a moment to reset so that we aren’t encouraged to go down that same path.”

I’ve started reading about this, and some of the articles are so quick to classify timeouts as just as abusive as spanking. Some can’t seem to do anything but generalize and assume all children who are given timeouts are expected to sit far away from the rest of the family in total silence until they’ve done their penance, and that all timeouts are likely to make children feel utterly alone, isolated from the rest of the family, and will ultimately create adults who are stifled and unable to express their feelings. I have a problem with any sweeping generalization like this, but in most generalizations, there will be a speck of truth. That’s what I’m looking for.

I tend to react negatively to parenting trends that are themselves overly reactionary. I like strategies and philosophies that are well thought out, well researched, and that simply make sense. And that, dear readers, is why I’m turning to you. I’m interested not in a debate so much as information. What do you do when your child engages in behavior that is…um…problematic? (I hesitate to choose the wrong word here, but I think you know what I mean: boundary testing, breaking things intentionally, throwing food at you after you have asked/begged/pleaded/insisted that they stop, hitting, biting, pulling of tails, etc.) And what do you think of timeouts? Do you use them? If so, why and how? If you don’t, why not? And for any of you, what is your favorite research on this issue?


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