Time out vs natural consequences

There have been a few pieces lately suggesting that time out is the new parental no no, that it’s ineffective and causes unnecessary distress. From reading these pieces, it seems that time out covers a wide range of things for different parents.

When the little dude goes to time out, it’s in his room with all his toys and we go back in quickly. We use time out as a circuit breaker and only when we’ve explained not to do something, or he knows not to do it and does it anyway, or we want to make sure the signal not to do it is crystal clear. When we go back in, we focus on explanation and reconnection. Time out may not be my parenting ideal, but it’s part of my “good enough parenting” bag of strategies. Especially with a baby around. When I’m one on one with either of them I’m like “I got this! I’m nailing the parenting!”. When I’ve got both of them I’m like “Why hello there, learning curve, you’re pretty steep aren’t ya?”.

But I also feel uncomfortable because the reasons I present for continuing to use time out match up with reasons people present for using corporal punishment, which I reject strongly. It works. It never did me any harm. They’re too little for a reprimand or explanation to be enough. Etc.

The case against time out focuses on the potential damaging effect of a punishment that removes parental attention, giving the child (especially small children) the signal that they’re not loved.

My memories of time out don’t support this argument. What I remember  of my own time outs as a child is sitting waiting for my parents to come into my room and talk it through. I remember that time out provided a kind of catharsis – things reached a point where I had to go away and be alone for a little while, and after that, there was the possibility for starting afresh. Time out separated the consequence from the explanation and processing. That seems like a pretty good tactic with very small children. Consequences should follow actions, but explanation should happen when people are calm. If the explanation is the only consequence, it’s more likely that the explanation will be stern and brief, essentially a reprimand with no opportunity for processing. If you try and do the careful explanation in the moment, there’s a risk it will become a long sermon of parental disappointment because they’re not ready to hear the message. And that’s not good either. Time out also provided a crucial opportunity for my parents to calm down too, and decide how best to discuss things with us.

My memories of discipline that made me feel the worst are all of this instant reaction type – the harsh word that didn’t get any follow up – not the time outs, which I understood as a more of a behavioural reset button.

The worst thing I ever did as a kid was pretty bad. We were camping with my cousins. I was about ten. We had a mud fight in the estuary and my younger cousin came up behind me while I was bending to scoop up the mud and pulled back the waistband of my shorts and shoved a handful  of mud down. I was fiercely angry, whipped around, and pushed him face down into the shallow water and held him there. My uncle immediately grabbed me off and yelled “what the hell are you doing?! He can’t breathe!” I felt deeply ashamed and instantly remorseful. Many would say I got off lightly as there was no further punishment. But there was also no further anything, and I remember feeling anxious for the rest of the day and beyond, over whether I was still in trouble. Whether everyone hates me now.

My brother once saw a friend be smacked, when he was pretty small, maybe four – and he told my mum “you need to tell his dad about time out!!”

From my own memories of discipline, I think the following things are important:

  1. Make sure the norms of good behaviour are clear. Notice them cleaning their toys and say “I really like it when you put away your toys, thank you for making our house tidy”. Notice when they are interested in their younger sibling and say “he likes it so much when you give him gentle kisses on his head, do you want to do that?”
  2. Make sure the message that something is unacceptable is clear and consistent. The specific discipline strategy is less important than the message. How you send the message might vary depending on where you are, for example if your child hits another child at the park you might leave the park, while if your child hits a sibling at home it might be that you comfort the hurt sibling and give no attention to the one who misbehaved until the hurt one has calmed down. It might be that it’s enough to say “that wasn’t gentle, did you hear him crying? He didn’t like that. Can you come give him a kiss to help him feel better?”.
  3. Try other strategies and reminders before using time out. Don’t present the time out as a threat (e.g. “if you do that again it will be time out”), but do remind them of the positive behaviour you want to see (“let’s do x instead of y”). Focus strongly on getting the desired behaviour – really sell “x”.
  4. Try and make time out as much a natural consequence as possible. Use it only for behaviours where the child needs to be removed from the situation because they will hurt someone or break something important. Think of it as an situational intervention rather than a punishment.
  5. Use time out for as short a time as possible. Even 30 seconds in enough for the little dude.
  6. Use time out to develop your plan for the next step. Parents sometimes need a reset button when children are presenting challenging behaviour. Time out can be your opportunity to figure out why they’re playing up and what their underlying emotional needs are.
  7. After time out (or any other consequence for negative behaviour), focus on four things: explaining why the actions are harmful, empathising with the underlying emotion, giving suggestion for alternative behaviour, and reconnecting. Reconnecting can mean that you get down on their level and scoop them up in your arms, or with an older child you sit next to them and invite them for a cuddle. They might not need the explanation of why the behaviour is unacceptable, they’ll usually know. A reminder of the alternative might be sufficient. Empathising with the underlying emotion is a key part of reconnection. Acknowledge that things are hard for them – “I know it’s hard when you want to play with me and I’m feeding B”. Give them credit for all the things they do well “it’s so nice when you’re a gentle big brother”. Etc. Remember the importance of physical connection – the same words said while the child puts his head in your lap and you stroke his hair are so much nicer than if you stand up towering over him and he looks at his feet.
  8. Don’t dwell on negative behaviour. You wouldn’t do that to an adult. Once it’s over, let it be over.
  9. Always distinguish between the behaviour and the person. He’s not a bad kid, he’s a kid, who did a thing that is harmful, but who will learn.
  10. Remember that their learning overall is mainly influenced by examples and social norms. They need to see positive examples of conflict resolution and they need to see that you forgive them quickly.
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