Time-Outs Aren’t Worth Your Time

I’ve noticed in several different places on the internet in the last couple of weeks various writers, parenting experts, and parents, discussing the proper use of time-outs. And I just have to say, the only necessary or effective use of a time-out is when your kid requests one for herself. Otherwise in every case, it involves an adversarial and even combative approach on the part of the parents; employs an emotionally violent coercive methodology that disrupts the continuity of the parent-child bond; and flat out doesn’t communicate anything to the child about “proper behavior”, or teach empathetic awareness, or any other “lesson” but: “My parent has abandoned me. I have been judged unworthy to be in the family,” and/or, “My parent doesn’t love me – she sent me away.”

The pundits espouse a lot of hooey about “teaching kids discipline”, and making sure the little angels learn that there are “consequences” for being “disruptive” or “acting out” or “misbehaving”. And it all strikes me as a bunch of total nonsense. I’m not trying to be mean or anything, I’m being completely honest.

When I hear someone say, “You have to teach them discipline,” I automatically think, “HOW!?” How does someone teach another to have: “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; [or] behavior and order maintained by training and control”? It seems like you can teach children the rules (to some degree and depending on their st/age), but you can’t really make them behave in accordance with those rules. Sure, you can get away with tricking them, or threatening them, into compliance on specific occasions, but you haven’t “taught them discipline”. You’ve simply treated them as if they were idiots or criminals and bullied them into jumping through hoops; you haven’t taught them “accord with [the] rules of conduct” at all. True capital-D Discipline is something that a parent can only hope to inspire, and you’ll get no where in that direction by forcing them to be alone for every infraction of the rules you want them to follow.

In addition, I find it just a teeny bit absurd to say that we are “teaching them about consequences” by using a completely external (and to the kid, seemingly arbitrary) punishment, which absolutely would not even exist as a “consequence” if we weren’t inserting it. The consequences of actions in the real world generally have more to do with the feelings and reactions of those involved, or the laws of physics. If we want to teach about consequences, we should have our children look at the effect they have on the people, things, and space around them – not shove them in a room by themselves, to be sequestered from the experience of any of the real consequences.

And when we get right down to it, I think it is misnomers like “disruptive”, “acting out” and “misbehaving” that help to put parents in the headspace where they think they have to resort to some power move in order to restore “order”. The trouble is, the cure is usually more disruptive to the general order than any action that came before. And the underlying problem is the adversarial nature of terms like “misbehaving” which set us up to be in opposition to something far more nefarious than our own upset child. How does someone actually mis-behave, anyway? I mean, either you are exhibiting behavior or you aren’t, you can’t mess up the action of exhibiting behavior…

In the end, I think terms like those above and the others like them wind up playing whole families for utter fools. Parents feud with their children over these ghost concepts which miscast the latter as somehow dysfunctional almost from the womb, and desperately in need of modification(s) in order to become the archetypes of propriety. We are sent to war with our children’s “disruptive behaviors” and must wrench our kids, however forcefully, from the clutches of their own baseness. And in that context, something like time-outs come across as the most humane manner to wage that war. Otherwise, we’d have to beat them into submission, right?

I think, instead, we’ll all get much further, if we abandon coercion all together, especially the emotionally and psychologically traumatic versions exemplified by time-outs and other love-withdrawal methods. And I think we’ll change the very nature of human existence if we are capable of waging peace in our homes instead of war. And further, I think we will unlimit human potential in ways we can not yet even imagine, if we would cease looking at our children’s (and other fellow human’s) behaviors as separate from the emotions and needs of the individual before us.

Children don’t have to be seen as anything other than humans with needs just like us. When they feel certain needs and desires, they will want to communicate them. It may take some time wherein they express those needs in ways that we don’t like, but eventually, if we are consistently modeling responsiveness, empathy, and communication, they will have no trouble learning to assert their needs in a generally conducive manner. In times of upset, we can assist our children in processing their feelings, and getting to their underlying needs (if any still exist after the feelings subside), and perhaps even assist them in meeting their needs. And after the episode is passed and when they are capable of hearing it, we can even offer them information about how we’d prefer they approach getting their needs met in the future.

Time-outs fail in these kinds of situations because:

  • They distract all parties involved from the original feelings and needs, by putting all focus squarely on the feelings associated with the punishment itself, and the new unmet needs of contact with the parent and immersion in the parent-child bond.
  • They send the tragically erroneous and intensely problematic message that certain behaviors make the child unloveable and unacceptable to us. In fact, time-outs communicate pretty clearly that specific behaviors are more important than the child him/herself.
  • They cause undue stress on  the relationship(s) involved, rather than contributing to the same.
  • They have been shown to be totally ineffectual at modifying long term behavior patterns.
  • They don’t teach anything about the empathy, communication skills, or forethought that we’d like to see our children exhibit instead of “misbehaving”.
The bottom line is, using time-outs as punishments won’t save us – we’ll still have kids who from time to time will get upset, make problematic choices of action, and still want their needs met. If we want to make all of our lives easier, we’ll change the way we see them instead. We’ll see them as they are – infinitely capable humans just like us, with feelings and needs just like us, who, also like us, just want to be at peace.
 *

Be well.
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Want to read more of my thoughts on punishments and what we do instead?
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About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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10 Responses to Time-Outs Aren’t Worth Your Time

  1. I can’t stand Super Nanny type time-outs either and I assume that’s the audience you are speaking to with this, but …just out of curiosity Nathan…when one of your girls point blank refuses to do something that your or Natalie ask them to do (a reasonable and age appropriate task) what do you do?

    • We have rubber bullets for that, Karyn! 😉

      But seriously… In a word: Empathy.

      I know that’s not enough information, but based on your query, and the comment/query from Michelle, I have decided to do another post in response. Keep an eye out for it in the next couple days!

      Be well.

  2. Although I have recommended time-outs and used time-outs with my own children, I agree with your stance on time-outs. My time-outs (even for myself) are for break/rest/calm-down time, for a few minutes, on a chair/couch in the same room with me, with blanket/pacifier/stuffed animal, using firm and kind words (“You can’t hit bc it hurts and hurts feelings; I still love you a lot.”), I ask for an apology for the chance for both kids to experience forgiveness/ acceptance.

    What do you think of this approach? What do you recommmend for discipline?
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Michelle Purvey, Psy.D.

    • Hi Michelle, welcome to the virtual discussion!

      Having grown up in the Bible Belt, and witnessing a heck of a lot of corporal punishment, I, too, would have (at one time) recommended time-outs as a more compassionate choice. And, in fact, did use time-outs when my elder two daughters were quite young, though only ever with the eldest. I thought then that something had to be done to send the message that particular behaviors (like hitting) were not acceptable. But time-outs a) Had no effect on Bella’s hitting Xi; b) Distracted Bella from the original situation completely; and c) Were awful for all of us. It just didn’t feel right. Every time, I felt conflicted, and weak, and then indignant and angry.

      Then I read, Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, and finally found the scientific license to quit time-outs cold turkey. I have never gone back. And I have gotten further and further from focusing on behavior modification at all.

      In answer to your queries, I am actually about to write another post. So stay tuned… But in the meantime, if you haven’t already, you might check out a previous post I wrote: Without a Net. It describes my general stance toward punishments.

      Nice hearing from you, Michelle.

      Be well.

  3. hakea says:

    Hi Nathan

    I know where you are coming from, and I think if you can manage your family without time-out that’s great!

    I had three very spirited lads in the space of four years, and 1-2-3 Magic has been a godsend. 1-2-3 Magic is not discipline though. It literally is time-out to regain self control. It also gives the child a chance to control their impulses by giving them the opportunity to correct their behaviour. At the end of the time-out, the matter is finished, no lectures or recriminations, and you get on with relating well to each other.

    I work with parents who don’t have the capacity for reflective parenting. I teach 1-2-3 Magic in the community, and although it’s not perfect and they sometimes interpret it as 1-2-3 Smack, I believe it is the most effective method for parents who are inclined to ‘lose it’ first rather than reflect. Child protection is the name of the game. With as many as 1 in 4 children in homes (the stats are worse in the community I work in) where there is domestic violence and child abuse, parents need a system they can use where there some hope of consistency.

    The 1-2-3 Magic system that Dr Thomas Phelan created is very sound from an attachment perspective. Also the parenting advice that he administers is grounded in good sense.

    • hakea says:

      Hi again Nathan

      I read Natalie’s blog, and now I know where you are coming from. I haven’t read Alfie Kohn’s book, and hadn’t heard of it before I started reading your blog.

      It sounds very much like Carl Roger’s person-centred therapy, and elaborated by Virginia Axline’s work with children in child-centered play therapy. I do hope Mr Kohn acknowledged the source of these ideas. 🙂

      I use the techniques espoused by Rogers and Axline in my work with children doing art therapy and play therapy group activities. Garry Landreth is also an inspiration. They are brilliant – acceptance, care, nurture, and empathic listening. I also use the techniques with my own children when empathy is the most appropriate response, and they need to be acknowledged and heard.

      However, in matters related to jumping on the lounge or growling at brothers, I use time-out. Or when I have a group of thirty kids who are all bristling with energy or aggression.

  4. For those of you following this discussion, I posted an answer to all of the above, here: https://locallocale.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/being-is-not-a-behavior-parenting-advice/ .

    Enjoy!

    NMM

  5. Pingback: Without a Net | "A Beautiful Place of the World"

  6. Pingback: (Back to) the Basics V: Who’s the Boss | "A Beautiful Place of the World"

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