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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10 Comments

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10 responses to “talk to me about timeouts

  1. We use timeouts, usually for unsafe behaviors. we just sit him in a chair in the room that we are in for less than 30 seconds, let’s be real he has no attention span. He doesn’t like them but they help keep him safe (as well as the new baby and us) and gives all of us a minute to calm down. What I love is that now sometimes when he gets angry he says, “I need a time out” and puts himself there. So, in that sense especially, I think they are effective in teaching him to manage his urges and his behaviors. Mostly I like natural consequences when there is no safety issues. 🙂

  2. A (A&K)

    I worked with an amazing behavioral social worker when we lived in MD and LOVED what she told parents when they asked her what to do when it came to discipline. These are some of the points she used to make:
    – It will only work if your child feels like they are missing out.
    -She often suggested that parents use a non-commital spot as the “time-out” spot (i.e. the bottom step of the staircase, on the floor next to the couch, etc) rather than the child’s comfort zones (bedrooms, cribs, etc – areas that are for sleeping shouldn’t be combined with “punishment”).
    -She often would suggest that if the child was still small enough (usually anyone under 3.5) AND if the space was available, pull out the pack and play and put them in there (to keep them contained but still able to see everyone else carrying on with their activities).
    -Set a timer on the stove, microwave – time out should not be a power struggle, and by having the authority to “release” a child from T.O. can create the child going against the parent/caregiver that puts them there. The timer should be roughly 1 minute for every year of life.

    She was wonderful and really helped a lot of the parents out who were in similar situations as you guys. I hope you don’t mind my sharing my (her!) 2 cents! 🙂

  3. A (A&K)

    Oh, and PS – the “ding” of the timer is what “ends” time out. Stopping the parent from having to say “Ok, you can come out now”. That way, if the child is throwing a fit, it’s not “up” to you to let them out – the timer didn’t ding yet, so you’re still in T.O.

    Ok that’s all —- really 🙂

  4. jilldab

    We use time outs as well with our six year old. It seems much more effective to have him sit on the stairs or a chair for 5-6 minutes than to send him to his room where he can play. He of course is old enough to understand what he is doing a bit more than a two year old but I believe children are smart enough to know what they are doing. And if it gets BG to stop for just a minute and calm down then I think it makes sense. I anticipate that we will do the same things with the twins once they are older.

  5. We use time outs, and I had time outs used on me when I was younger. I don’t think they negatively affected me in any way- I have no abandonment issues or anything like that 🙂 I also clearly remember the couple of times I was hit/spanked, but I also don’t think they negatively affected me either (they weren’t regular or overly violent). Anyway, we may or may not give a warning before the time out- it depends on how ‘bad’ the action is. When we do give him a time out, we use our bottom stair and stand there while he remains sitting. It’s usually for only a minute. We all use that time for re-setting, although we will definitely re-iterate why he is there and why what he did was wrong. As jkc said, sometimes he’ll give himself a time out or say ‘yes’ when we ask if he wants one. Obviously if he wants to do it, he also sees it as beneficial for his need to ‘reset.’ Super-bad behavior lands him in his crib for a couple minutes.

  6. As a teacher, I use voluntary “time out” in my classroom – students can identify when they need a break and go to a place on the side of the room to calm down. In this form, the time out is not a punishment, but a way to refocus and hopefully come back ready to learn and participate appropriately. With my youngest students, I will sometimes tell them they need a break, or ask them if they might need one when I see them getting worked up emotionally, or getting physically dangerous or out of control. It sounds like that might be what you see as BGs goal – to recognize when he needs to take a minute for himself and calm down. At this young age, though, I think kids need to be told when they are worked up, and given the tools to calm down with an adult’s help.

    My special education side also wants to point out that time out is supposed to be a “time out from positive reinforcement,” that is, there should be no positive attention (or perhaps any attention) given while in time out. As soon as it is done, however, positive attention is lavished upon the child, and they are included wholeheartedly in the activity at hand. The reason time outs work when correctly implemented is that the child is displaying the undesired behavior to get attention, and the removal of that attention is a deterrent to repeating the behavior. If BG is pulling the cats tail for another reason (he likes the sound the cat makes, or enjoys the sight of the cat tearing off at high speeds), then you may have to pair the time out with another reinforcement for appropriate behavior – probably things you already do, like praising him when he pets the cat nicely, or letting him play with a fast-moving toy instead of the cat.
    *steps off of teacher soap box*

  7. J

    The poll right now suggests there are readers who never use them, so what do you use instead? What works for you when you’re trying to correct a behavior that drives you nuts, like pulling tails (obviously that’s our big one).

  8. nycphoenix

    the models we use at work (children’s counseling) is positive discipline, sos parenting and 123 magic. one social worker commented that she likes to see time out as a way to regroup and give space to self regulate and not as a punnishment or consequence. so let’s say child tantrums gets a time out for x mins (1 per yr of age). at end of time out child is quiet playing with a toy. some parents say that it didn’t work worker responded that the goal was to get the child to calm down and stop tantrumming and so it was successful

  9. Ainsley

    We do use timeouts, with one warning. “If you throw your toys at the cat ONE MORE TIME, you’re going to sit in timeout.”

    He has a timeout step, where he has to sit for one minute. If he gets up, the minute starts over. Typically, he’ll get up once or twice, but gets it pretty quickly once we plunk him back down. And he’s even put himself on the step a few times after we’ve said “Now you’re in timeout.”

    After the minute is up, we get down to his level, tell him why he was in timeout, and then give him hugs and kisses.

    It may not work for everyone, but it seems to be working for us. Owen’s definitely at the “testing” stage….looks us right in the eye and chucks his toys at the cat….and for now, the timeout seems to send the right message.

  10. Kathryn

    3K&H2011-10-01 19:22:35

    Are you doing timed time outs? I’ve found that “child-led” time outs work better at this age for me. In other words, instead of saying ‘stay here until I tell you to get up’ or some such thing, I prefer to use ‘take a break until you’re ready to try again’. Then he can choose when he’s ready to stop tantruming and come back to whatever you were doing. This way he’s regulating himself, he has motivation to stop for himself rather than just to please you, and he’s learning that he has choices.
    Another significant part of this is that you have to be willing to actually let him continue until he’s ready/able to stop. We found with Darling that some days she would have one whopper of a tantrum in the morning and then we would be set forthe day. She knew that she got to choose her behavior and we would respect that sometimes she just needed to FEEL, you know? If we came in with soothing words, stopped her regulating herself, we would surely find another tantrum was right around the corner. She had to play the whole thing out before she could pack it away for another day.
    Also key with this approach is that sometimes afterward she needs a hug, sometimes to talk about what happened, sometimes a song, etc. It helps that she’s an excessively verbal child and could tell us, but I think even with a kid who can only say yes or no it can still work. We aren’t big into the whole apologizing, talk about how others feel type of stuff (though sometimes that is fitting) so afterward was just about her feeling better after the experience, and processing it if she needed to. Because she was the one who chose when to come back she would come back calm and acuallu ready to try again rather than still annoyed or keyed up.

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