You are here

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.

Be Age-Appropriate

Many parents first reach for the time-out when faced with toddlerhood. But some experts believe that until age 2 (or more likely 3), little ones can't understand a time-out. Sure enough, when my 23-month-old son developed the habit of pinching his newborn sister until she howled, I tried herding him to the newly appointed time-out chair. My calm, cool intervention quickly dissolved into a Keystone Cops chase. He had a grand time. He learned nothing.

"For children two and under, the value of time-out comes in the first few seconds, when they're insulted that you've stopped their activity," says Lynda Madison, Ph.D., author of Parenting With Purpose: Progressive Discipline From Birth to 4. "Don't get roped into a power struggle over them staying in one spot for one minute per year. It's better to be brief and successful than to get into a big battle."

Before a child is old enough to control his impulses or connect his action with your response — somewhere between ages 2 and 3 — nothing beats close supervision, distraction, and ignoring minor misdeeds. It would have been better had I said to my son, "No pinching. Pinching hurts," and shown him a safer way to touch the baby, such as stroking her foot.

Avoid issuing time-outs for behavior that is developmentally normal rather than devious, says Pieper. For instance, refusing to share is normal among toddlers because children that age are driven to have what they want, when they want it. And with older kids, fibbing is a typical behavior. "It's part of the immature mind at age four or five to bend reality," Pieper says. "You need to see it as a normal stage and help your child understand what was behind her need to stretch the truth."

Set Clear Limits in the First Place

It's hardly fair to shout "Time-out!" the first time your preschooler turns on the TV without permission. First, she needs to understand what your rules and expectations are.

With an infant or a toddler, having clear limits means defining them for yourself. Will you let your child eat in your lap at the table rather than in her high chair? Are bottles and snacks allowed in the living room? Decide, then enforce consistently. With an older child, you'll need to communicate limits through your example, words, and reactions. Avoid what McKenzie calls "soft limits": saying "I wish you'd stop" instead of the more direct "Stop that"; getting roped into arguments and debates; bribing; repeating yourself endlessly without taking action; giving long lectures and sermons.

"Soft limits invite testing and noncompliance," he says. Firm limits, on the other hand, send clear messages. This means directly and specifically addressing the behavior in a normal tone of voice. State your request and, if necessary, describe the consequence, McKenzie says. For example, say, "Please don't ride your bike in the street. If you do, I'll have to put it away for the rest of the day." Focus on the behavior, not the child. Don't say, "Are you crazy? You could be killed!" Then, equally important — and sometimes the most difficult for parents — follow through on the stated consequence.

Start With Other Tactics

Sure, calling a time-out brings undesirable behavior to an end. But purgatory shouldn't be your first resort. "Often, all you have to do is redirect your child to an appropriate behavior," says Madison. Is your preschooler coloring on the table? Give him more paper or switch to Play-Doh. Are siblings bickering in the backseat of the car? Initiate a cooperative game, such as "How many red cars can we count before we get to Grandma's?"

Not only are other measures effective, they're far less likely to cause a scene and far more logical than zipping straight to time-out. One good tool is to warn about potential consequences. These can be natural results ("If you don't bring your doll inside, the rain will ruin it, and I won't buy a new one") or logical consequences that you determine. When Jessica, 11, and Jenna Berger, 5, refuse to pick up a mess or do their chores, their dad, Jeff, of Des Moines, doles out matter-of-fact warnings that translate into time-outs from favored activities. "I simply try to figure out the next thing they would want to do, such as using the computer, then say that I'll take away that privilege unless they do what's expected of them," he says. "But you have to know what's important to your kids at that moment for it to work."

Be a Presence

The classic time-out involves isolating a child in a boring corner and ignoring her so as not to reinforce poor behavior with attention. But opinions are divided over the best location. Is your child's bedroom too packed with fun diversions? And does using it run the risk of turning a pleasant haven into a place with negative associations?

In fact, you can probably effectively send a child to a bedroom, a corner, or a special chair, but you won't escape the essential problem: Solitary confinement simply doesn't provide a good model of problem solving. "It sends the message that whenever you're upset or angry, you should be isolated," says Pieper. "Rather than banish a child to her room by herself, go with her. She'll still get the idea that there are things she's not allowed to have or do, but she'll also know that she has someone who cares about her."

Keep Calm

A time-out appeals to many parents because, in concept, it's a kind and gentle mode of discipline — free of shaming, blaming, shouting, or spanking. "And certainly it's most effective when used in a calm, consistent, respectful, clear, firm, and matter-of-fact way," McKenzie says.

Yet a time-out is typically given when we're at our wit's end and feeling anything but calm. (And who wouldn't be in a state upon discovering her new CDs were once again dusted with tea-cookie crumbs?)

"I really struggle sometimes with getting drawn into the crankiness," says Sue Broadbooks of Lakewood, Colorado. She uses time-outs rarely — usually just when her 5-year-old daughter, Ella, is out of control or screaming and needs to calm down, and redirection hasn't worked.

In fact, a time-out could be conceptualized not only as a way to teach a lesson but also as a way to help a child (or a parent) regain some self-control before moving on. "It's very useful when a child is overwrought with emotion, when he's angry or crying, and when he needs a break in order to think," says Lyndon Waugh, M.D., of the Atlanta Area Family Psychiatry Clinic and author of Tired of Yelling: Teaching Our Children to Resolve Conflict. Dr. Waugh likes the idea of a "thinking chair" rather than a designated time-out spot — a comfortable place where a child can retreat to collect his thoughts about the situation. While he's sitting there, ask him to ruminate about the problem and how he could have handled it better, but try your best to avoid the impulse to continue to lecture or to threaten him to "think about why you were bad." Just let him calm down first.

Show a Better Way

Plunking a wired child in a time-out for a few minutes may work to help her regain her self-control, but it doesn't always go far enough. "With misbehavior, the goal should also be to make a point — to stop the child from doing something wrong and give her another chance to do it right," says Madison.

She agrees with other experts who advise the "clean slate" plan: After time's up, you don't dwell on the transgression. She thinks that it's a good idea to give your child the opportunity to "make things right" with you. Good feelings can result if, for example, you let your child clean up a mess she's made (or for a younger child, have her help you clean up). Or retribution can be as simple as directing the child to an alternate activity and then giving positive reinforcement when she does it.

Simple, non-belabored reminders can work wonders. Dawn Barclay follows her 4-year-old daughter Julianne's time-outs with a recap of what went wrong, then offers alternatives for how she might have acted instead. "So the next time, she has choices that we've identified together," says the mom from West Nyack, New York.

Be Realistic

One of the big surprises that's come out of disciplining my children has been how much repetition is involved — having to say things like "Please sit up straight" over and over again. Kids absorb rules gradually, and because they're constantly growing and changing, they constantly test new limits and require different types of attention. Steering their behavior all day long is exhausting, but it's part of the job.

A time-out was never intended to be a cure-all. It's only one discipline strategy that's at your disposal. "A time-out isn't effective in any family that doesn't have a lot of positive attention and positive reinforcement," Madison says. If you also use other techniques, if you're respectful and trustworthy, have clear rules and a happy household, you may not even need to reach for the timer often — if ever.