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The Truth About Time-Outs

"Time-out" has become an automatic phrase in the lingo of parenthood: Your child's sassing back? Send him to time-out! She's using your CDs for tea-party plates, despite repeated warnings to stop? Call a time-out! He's slugging a playmate in a protracted tussle over a brand-new Naboo Fighter? Time-out! Time-out! Time-out!

At first, the tactic seemed like a good idea to me too: a neutral, nonviolent way of correcting misbehavior. Then I tried it. I felt oversold. Now that my children are 8, 6, 3, and 1, I've come to consider the traditional time-out — "go sit alone in the corner for as many minutes as your age" — to be a cop-out.

The trouble is that a time-out can tilt toward being punitive without being instructive. "It's probably the most misused and abused of all discipline strategies," says psychologist Robert McKenzie, the author of Setting Limits: How to Raise Responsible, Independent Children by Providing Clear Boundaries. Too often it's applied with anger, which breeds resentment rather than teaches. Parents depend on it too much and expect too much from it — and then wonder why it doesn't work as well as it's been touted to.

"It's not that time-outs don't work," says Chicago psychotherapist Martha Pieper, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline. "You can control a child's behavior this way. But you can also be in charge of your child's behavior without relying on unpleasant consequences." The trick is to keep in mind the following cornerstones of effective discipline; ideally, they should be part of your everyday approach to child rearing anyway and not limited to frustrated moments with a timer in tow.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Your Toddler.