It’s Time To Rethink This Classic Parenting Tool

Every mom has been there – you’re cooking dinner, the kids are tired, hungry, and cranky.  They’re fighting and running around while you warn them over and over again what’s coming if they don’t settle down.

It’s “time out” time!  Your child runs away, kicks and screams, and when you finally get them in the time-out chair, they get up and make you chase them around, which leads you to add more time to their time-out.

Sound familiar?  It’s no wonder that parents and kids are frustrated by the use of time-out as a punishment.  It is overused and often ineffective.  Why?  Because we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Parents.com reported:

Thirty years after it came into vogue as an alternative to spanking, time-out is getting its middle-age checkup from physicians and other child advocates. Some staunch opponents have gone so far as to recommend banning it. Most experts, however, remain in favor of the time-out tactic, which has enabled millions of families to spare the rod while teaching children limits. Still, they say parents need to refine their understanding of the classic technique and overhaul the way they use it at home.

Simply put, time-out is supposed to be a brief pause in a caregiver’s interaction with a child, its purpose being to allow the child a chance to practice self-calming skills. What it isn’t: “Time-out isn’t a chair; it isn’t a corner; it’s not a length of time,” says pediatrics professor Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., who helped pioneer the technique in the 1970s. “It’s supposed to be time out from positive reinforcement,” he says. “As soon as the concept became a chair, it was ruined.”

Parents often use time-out as a way to give themselves a break for a few minutes so they can calm down and handle the situation.  But putting a child in a chair or corner with no communication about the purpose of it is ineffective.

And most parents give several warnings prior to putting a child in time-out, which experts say completely negates the entire point of the process. In order to be more effective when using time-outs with our children, parents need to have a well-thought-out plan of action before using time-outs, and the plan needs to be consistently implemented.

The experts agree – time-out is used too often, for too long a time period, or after a child is old enough to move on to other disciplinary measures because they are able to better understand consequences as they mature emotionally.

Time-out, then, should be a brief and complete break from attention of any kind; no discussing the behavior, no one around to distract them – nothing.  And it should be used infrequently, immediately in reaction to the negative behavior, in a consistent manner, and then followed by positive reinforcement.

Researchers suggest using “time-out” along with “time-in,” a period of positive reinforcement that leads children to want to avoid the time-out – or lack of attention from their caregiver. Children crave attention, and when they behave in a negative way, it is because they know how we will react – we will warn, threaten, talk too much to them, and otherwise pay more attention to them.

Parents.com reported on research that suggested:

Part of the problem, as this research suggests, is that parents aren’t considering time-outs in the context of other measures to encourage prosocial behavior or emotional regulation. Parents decide in advance what behaviors meet time-out criteria and talk about it with kids outside of time-out.

Time-in is the experience kids have that makes it more likely that they’ll continue doing what they’re doing—positive reinforcement. Examples of positive reinforcement are attention, praise, and access to privileges when kids do the opposite of what usually gets them in time-out. “Time-in…is essential to effectiveness, and [time-out] is only recommended in combination with positive reinforcement strategies.” In contrast, time-out has little or, better yet, no positive reinforcement—it’s time-out from positive reinforcement. An abundance of positive interactions and experiences is the aim for making time-in distinct from time-out. Investing in time-in minimizes the need for time-out.

Early childhood education experts stress that time-outs should never be the only disciplinary measure used by parents.  We must use it as a tool in our parental toolbox, one of many ways to address negative behavior, depending on the situation.

Other effective techniques include redirecting a child from a negative situation, for example, taking them outside to get a breath of fresh air in the middle of a tantrum, preventing situations that may escalate into negative behaviors, like planning activities close to bedtime when they will be tired and cranky, or guiding them by modeling and positive reinforcement.

In fact, research shows that parental modeling of positive behaviors – showing our children how to behave – and praising their own positive behaviors – “catching them being good” – are the most successful ways to prevent negative behaviors in the first place.

Parents.com continued:

No matter where they stand on the issue of time-outs, proponents and opponents agree on one thing: Time-outs were never intended as the be-all and end-all of discipline. Parents need a big bag of tricks, experts say. Guidance advocates are also huge fans of positive reinforcement for good behavior (sometimes referred to as time-in) and of modeling the behavior adults would like children to emulate, both of which bring them squarely in line with the pediatric and child development mainstream.

Perhaps it is time that we, as parents, take a “time-out” to re-examine this often used form of discipline.  When used in the manner it was originally intended, time-out can be effective.  But we need to make it a consistent teaching moment for our kids, rather than a reaction to our own frustrations with behavior.

What are your thoughts?  Do you use time-outs, and if so, do you feel they work for your family?  Or do you think your time-out strategy needs to be re-examined?  Leave us your comments.

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