Time In Rather Than Time Out

By Barb Grady

            Many of my students have had questions about the use of time out.  This article is intended to clarify time out and help you to determine if your goal is punishment or education.  A time-out is an enforced time alone used as a consequence for unwanted behavior. Many parents and early child educators use time-outs as a form of discipline as it has become an accepted method of behavior management.  It is thought to be a humane and sensitive means of disciplining children because using time-out appears less injurious than hitting, spanking, or yelling.  The technique can be deceptive because immediate behavior is controlled and extinguished. Some early childhood experts have suggested the use of time-outs as a preferred method for setting limits with preschool children. According to many other educators and psychologists, however, time-out is not as innocent as it seems and can be a harmful way to discipline children and especially toddlers. In fact, the National Association for the Education of Young Children includes the use of time-out in a list of harmful disciplinary measures along with physical punishment, criticizing, blaming, and shaming.

So whom do you believe?  In such cases, I try it out and see if it works for my kids and me.  I consciously chose to raise my children differently from the way I was raised.  My parents were extremely authoritarian and believed that children were to be controlled by them rather than taught how to be self-controlled.  Beneath the surface, time-out is an authoritarian approach and only works with children trained to comply with the power and authority of adults.  Children who have not been brought up in an authoritarian environment will likely refuse to go to another room or sit in a chair.  Both my kids refused to comply with the time-out by staying in their room.  I actually remember a time with my oldest daughter where I was outside her bedroom door, holding the door shut with all my might, to keep my daughter in there.  I became frustrated, angry, and finally had to laugh at the ridiculous situation.  Fortunately, I was able to recover my sense of humor and the loss of my dignity.  I would not have wanted the 20/20 cameras rolling on that one.  In hindsight, I am grateful to have children without a history of punitive authoritarianism that produces children docile enough to obey.

From a child’s point of view, time-out is definitely experienced as punishment.  Who wants to be isolated from the group and totally ignored?  Time-out can be perceived by children as abandonment and loss of love.  Children under the age of seven do not have the capacity to process words in the same way that adults do. Being isolated and ignored is interpreted as “Nobody wants to be with me right now.  Therefore, I must be bad and unlovable.” No loving words, however well intended, can override this feeling of rejection.  Nothing is more frightening for a child than the withdrawal of love.  Along with the fear come insecurity, anger, confusion, resentment, and low self-esteem.  Time-out can also cause embarrassment and humiliation, especially when used in the presence of other children.  The young child has to have a deep sense of psychological safety that refers to feeling connected and supported.  Safety grows out of being able to trust people to respond positively and help them make sense of their own experience.

Painful feelings are one consideration, but the information conveyed about human relationships is another.  What messages are we giving our children demonstrating that love and attention are commodities to be doled out or withheld for purposes of controlling others?  Is this a conflict resolution skill that will be useful to them?  How will it influence their ability to interact with friends, and someday a spouse and coworkers?

Time-out is usually an undesirable practice for several reasons:

  1. An imposed, external control of behavior circumvents a child’s need to build internal controls. She may come to rely on adult intervention, and the development of autonomous problem solving may be affected.  The child may begin to feel ineffectual when trying to resolve her conflicts independently.  Intervention that involves a time-out makes a child feel powerless, so her feelings of being ineffectual become self-fulfilling.
  2. The adult’s need to maintain order is met by banishing a young child to a time-out chair/room, but the child’s needs are not addressed. Time-out does not teach the child alternative strategies.
  3. The repeated use of time-out can have a negative effect on a child’s developing sense of self-worth and self-confidence. A child may come to believe that his own feelings and desires have little value because adults’ feelings and needs consistently take precedence.
  4. The indirect relationship between action and consequences is confusing to young children. Lillian Katz writes, “If the child’s mental ability is reasonably normal, it is not necessary to circumvent the mind by insisting on a time-out chair.  The cognitive connection between sitting on a particular chair and granting another child’s request for a turn must be fairly obscure if not confusing to a four-year-old.”  Katz points out that four-year-olds do not understand the relationship between behavior and the resulting punishment.  Imagine the bewilderment of an even less experienced child (toddler).
  5. Opportunities for valuable learning experiences are forfeited during these periods of isolation. Toddlers benefit from direct and immediate assistance while they acquire the tools to help them resolve their difficulties independently.  Young children need a present and alert caregiver.  The presence of an adult who can reflect feelings and break down complexities into manageable terms helps resolve problems or keeps them from occurring. 

Many conflicts arise because young children’s normal experimentation with their rapidly developing independence.  A basic social and emotional challenge for toddlers is learning how to resolve their conflict between their drive for autonomy and their dependence on adults. They need to feel they have some control.

Adults can help a young child have an appropriate amount of control by giving frequent opportunities to make choices and decisions.  Too many choices can be confusing though.  Toddlers are also managing the complexities of language.  Their ability to verbalize their needs and desires is limited.  Adults can model effective means of communication and demonstrate how to negotiate.  Responsive caregivers can verbally interpret the relationship between the child’s action and another person’s response. 

Taking toddlers by the hand and demanding that they “Say you’re sorry!” does them little service.  The concept of “sorry” is complex for two-year-olds to understand.  Toddlers are egocentric and unable to see the world from another’s point of view.  They are not yet able to be truly sorry and forcing them to say that they are contradicts their true feelings.  A child may come to believe that saying, “I’m sorry,” resolves the conflict and that he is no longer responsible for the situation. 

Similarly, “Take turns!” and “Share!” can be confusing demands for most very young children.  I have noticed that when a parent or teacher automatically tells a toddler, “Use your words!” the response is usually a blank look.  I think that if the child could use her words, she probably would.  What do you suppose “Use you words” means to a two-year-old?  What is a word?  In response to the query, “How would it feel if I took your truck?” the toddler might say, if she could, “I’m not even sure what I feel right now!”  Even very bright toddlers do not comprehend linguistic abstractions such as these.  Verbal guidance must be regulated by what the child is able to understand and relevant to what the child is doing.  Consequently, I like the term time-in which implies that responsive caregivers are there to mirror the child’s feelings, because when we try to change a behavior without addressing feelings and needs, we do not help children very much at all.  Why?  Because the underlying problem is still there.  Teaching children to conform to our wishes does not resolve the deeper issues.  Far more helpful than isolation is an attentive listener who can encourage the expression of honest feelings.  The healthy release provided by talking, crying, or raging, may even prevent to occurrence of unwanted behavior.  Holding children who are out of control is much more effective than silencing them.  Holding creates safety and warmth, inviting the expression of genuine feelings amid the power not of a parent, but of the parent-child bond.  It is paradoxical yet true: children are most in need of loving attention when they act least deserving of it.  Telling a child to sit quietly rarely accomplishes anything constructive.

Helpful Practices for Guiding Toddlers

  • Look for underlying needs. Give your child something to play with while waiting in line.
  • Look for underlying feelings. If your child hits his baby sister, encourage him to tell you why he is upset, and to express his anger and jealousy in harmless ways.
  • Change the environment. It is easier than trying to change the child.
  • Find acceptable alternatives and redirect you child’s behavior.
  • Demonstrate how you want your child to behave.
  • Give information and reasons.
  • Be clear as you explain limits and expectations. For example, you can say, “You may not bite Tommy!  That hurts!  You can bite an apple.”
  • Be consistent. Limits should be predictable.
  • Have age appropriate expectations. A toddler should not be expected to share a favorite toy. 
  • Take social conflicts seriously. Listen to children: physically get down to their level and make eye contact.  Empathize equally with all children involved in a conflict.
  • Use a positive approach for guidance. For example, “Please give Jody some blocks” instead of “Don’t take all the blocks.”  Tell children what you want them to do, rather than what you do not want.
  • Give children a chance to try again.
  • Give young children adequate time. Children need to process, then act on the information they are given.
  • Give choices rather than commands.
  • Give I-messages.
  • Hold, hold, and hold. This expression of love enables children who are acting aggressively or obnoxiously to channel their pent-up feelings into healing tears.
  • Take a parental time-out. Leave the room and do whatever you need to do to (cry, call a friend, meditate, take a shower) to regain your sense of composure and good judgment.

It is not necessary to isolate children or withdraw our love to teach them how to “behave.”  In fact, it is entirely possible to help children learn to become cooperative and decent members of society without ever controlling them, without issuing punishments or rewards of any kind.  No quick and easy method will solve every conflict.  Instead, we need to treat each situation as the unique challenge that it is and be flexible and creative while giving our children the love and respect they deserve.  Time-out or time-in…it’s your choice.