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Managing time outs during time away

Matt Villano

When we’re home and the soon-to-be 3-year-old misbehaves, she gets time outs quicker than you can say, “time out.” On the road, however, my wife and I take a dramatically different approach.

Trust me, we don’t enjoy promoting this double standard. Instead, we consider our position to be necessary—for our own survival, and for the sanity of other vacationers in nearby hotel rooms.

It all comes down to the threat of noise pollution. Here in rural Northern California, where we live, we don’t really care if L shrieks like a Tasmanian Devil while we let her cry it out. But in random hotels, most of which go for a minimum of $299 per night (when we travel as a unit, that’s usually how we roll), the very last thing we want is for our girl to become the kid that makes other travelers hate family travel.

So we improvise. And we respond to poor behavior with unflagging deprivation.

Before each trip, we identify the stuffed animal or toy that L has deemed her favorite for the month. We encourage her to bring said totem, explaining to her that if she acts up on the road, the favorite item will be confiscated until she proves she remembers how good girls behave.

She usually tests us that first day, breaking out her bad-girl alter ego until one of us grown-ups snaps up the totem and shoves it in a suitcase for a few hours.

From that point forward, the mere threat of losing Favorite Toy usually does the trick.

(I say “usually,” because every trip includes one or two slip-ups during which a) L cannot correct her behavior before the totem is taken away or b) one parent—I admit, I’m the weak link—is a bit too lax in applying the vacation discipline policy with the rigor it demands.)

Does it feel inhumane to constantly threaten the child with taking away her favorite thing? Absolutely. Is it annoying to hang so much of the vacation on the status of a stuffed animal/train/puzzle/whatever? You bet. Might child psychologists say my wife and I are antichrists for depriving our kid of stuff she adores? Perhaps.

But, again, the strategy works at least 70 percent of the time, and—more important, IMHO—it keeps the kid relatively quiet, so she doesn’t ruin anyone else's vacation.

It’s worth noting that, at least in our experience, this strategy does NOT carry over back at home. There must be something about the comfort factor—that familiar fave in the face of all the new stuff on a vacation—that makes the threat particularly frightful.

Whatever the explanation, the bottom line is that standard time-out strategies just don’t work away from home. For now, we’ve found a successful alternative. Good luck finding yours.

Got an on-the-road discipline strategy you’d like to share? Please provide details in the comment fields below.