Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 16, 2022

Does Time Out Really Work?

It’s an age-old form of discipline, but you have to know how to use it for it to be effective.

Full2650.jpgMaybe it’s all the “nanny” shows on TV these days. Or maybe I’m spending too many hours out and about observing overworked parents interacting with their preschoolers. But it seems that not a day goes by without my witnessing yet another time-out scene.

You know the drill, the child misbehaves, and the parent, like an angry referee, yells time-out! and plops the child down in the appointed chair or squares his shoulders in the nearest corner.

But then mom gets distracted and before you know it, the child has wandered back to the scene. Yelling eventually ensues. Finally, when time-out is actually over, the parent (who is still really angry with the child) asks, “Are you ready to say you’re sorry?”

The child rarely looks sorry; he looks angry and upset. But he’ll say anything to get out of his prison.

I’m in no position to judge (I’ve certainly done my share of hollering at my two kids), but I wonder about the effectiveness of this most popular of discipline tools. By the looks on the faces of the kids and their parents, and the tear-stained cheeks and wagging fingers, one really has to wonder: does time-out even work? Is it time for us to take a “time out” from time-out?

Defining Discipline

Let’s back up. We all agree that time-out is one of the tools we might use when our child misbehaves. We want to discipline our children; in fact, it is our responsibility as parents to discipline our children. But just what is discipline? According to Jean llIsley Clarke, author of Time-In: When Time-Out Doesn’t Work (Parenting Press, Inc.; $10.95), “The Latin root for the word discipline means ‘to teach’.” Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Positive Discipline (F+W Publications Company; $14.95), gives us this formula: Discipline = 90 percent instruction + 10 percent correction.

Experts agree: discipline involves some correction, but the lion’s share of discipline lies in encouraging positive behavior, and teaching correct behavior according to family rules and values. Taking this as a working definition, that discipline is teaching our children appropriate behavior, we need to look at how we are using time-out. Is it being used to teach appropriate behavior, or are we using it only for correction, otherwise known as punishment?

What is Time-out?

Time-out, originally defined, was just that: “time out” from a bad situation. It is meant to remove the child from a dangerous or inappropriate behavior. The child is to be removed from a situation and placed somewhere devoid of stimulation where he can just think things over and possibly think about how he can act differently next time.

Instead, it appears that time-out, for many families, has been turned into a form of punishment. The child is removed from the situation, but emotions are seldom calmed, scolding continues after the time-out continues, and there is no follow-up discussion, thus, no instruction. No asking, “What happened here?”, “Why is that wrong?” or “What could you do next time?”

What’s Wrong With Punishment?

Not all punishment is bad. According to William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, authors of The Discipline Book (Little, Brown and Company; $14.99), “Children must learn there are limits in life and ‘consequences.’ An if-then lesson.” Further, “the child who grows up never having to face the consequences of his actions never learns responsibility.” Punishment can and should be used for violations of significant family rules and agreements.

It’s when punishment becomes the main form of discipline for daily behavior that problems arise. According to Pickhardt, “if punishment is the only corrective that parents use, not only does it place undue negative influence on the relationship, but it erodes the power of punishment itself.” He adds, “The more punitive a relationship becomes for a child, the less desire he has to cooperate with this parents.” Punishment might best be reserved for those major infractions that children sometimes commit.


Can Time-out Work at All?

Is it time to take a permanent “time out” from time-out? Not necessarily. Time-out can be very effective if it is used as part of a positive disciplinary plan. Time-out is much more than putting a child in a chair in the corner. It involves calming the child and talking things over.

In short, it is useful if it is part of Pickhardt’s 90 percent instruction. Another good reason for using time-out: when your own emotions as a parent have reached the boiling point. We all know the feeling of needing to lock ourselves in the bathroom while we cool off. In this case, time-out for ourselves is perfectly appropriate, and may stave off an impulse to physically or verbally harm the child.

If Not Time-out, Then What?

“Time-out is a logical discipline tool, and it is safer than spanking or criticism. But when it does not have a calming effect or does not result in better behavior, parents and caregivers need additional discipline tools,” says Clarke. “Look for methods of discipline that will stop the unwanted action and also build better behavior in the future.” What are those methods?

Pickhardt suggests, “The most powerful way for parents to foster obedience is to reward every act of compliance by their child with appreciation, approval or praise.” It’s the old “catch ’em being good” idea. Not to be overdone, but a little praise or recognition goes a long way. Sears and Sears recommend: get to know your child, set limits and provide structure, expect obedience, nurture your child’s self-confidence and shape your child’s behavior.

There are no quick solutions. Discipline is taught over time. We make a lot of mistakes along the way, but we talk things out, both with ourselves, partner, friends and children. Time-out can be one of the tools we choose to use, but only if we use it in a productive way that fosters the relationship we are trying to build with our children. The good news is that there are lots of other ways to teach our children the right path to take, so that they can feel good about themselves as children, and we can feel good about ourselves as parents. We just need to take the time out to find those ways – no pun intended.

Martha Wegner is a freelance writer and parent.


solving and preventing the problem

Children make mistakes. Each one made is a learning experience for a child. Some mistakes may even warrant discipline. It is up to parents to help their children through the trials and errors of life.

In the book Smart Discipline: Fast, Lasting Solutions for Your Peace of Mind and Your Child’s Self Esteem (Harper Collins; $23.95), author Larry J. Koenig, Ph. D., teaches a new way to discipline and steps to preventing more problems through a system comprised of charts, checklists and instructions that address behaviors commonly found in children: disrespectful language, interrupting, morning and bedtime hassles, messy rooms and more.

“I have encountered numerous heartbroken parents who feared they had failed their children,” says Koenig. He reminds parents what may have led their child to make mistakes. He also offers this list of seven key mistakes parents make:

  • Not learning from your mistakes
  • Saying no and then changing your mind
  • Leaving teenagers alone when you go out of town
  • Not listening effectively
  • Not insisting on involvement in school, community and church activities
  • Not checking on your children
  • Getting into power struggles

About the Author