Time Out for Time Out

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


"Jillian, if you don't stop talking back to me, you're going to sit in the time out area until you learn to respect me!"


"You know that when children in this family won't put their toys away they have to sit in time out. Is that what you want? If not, you better start putting those toys away right now."


"Roberta, you're being naughty. Naughty girls have to sit in this naughty chair until they learn their lesson. Go to the naughty chair now. I'll tell you when it's time to get out."


"Anthony, the school policy says that children can't push other children. You're on the wall for pushing Carlos. Go sit by the wall with those other two over there. You can watch the other children playing the way they're supposed to until recess is over."


"Rita, you're supposed to be in time out. Get back in that chair and stay there quietly until your time is up. Now I have to reset the timer because you left the time out chair early."


Parents across the country are using words such as these in an attempt to control a child’s behavior with the increasingly popular discipline technique of "time out." Parents, teachers, principals, daycare providers and even the Super Nanny are using time outs as a technique to teach children to behave in a desired way. In an attempt to correct a behavior, they're telling children to sit on chairs in the middle of a classroom or on a bench outside the principal's office, sending them to their bedroom, or making them sit on a "naughty step."


Adults use time outs with the best of intentions. They want a discipline technique that’s an option to sarcasm, ridiculing, yelling, or shaming. They prefer not to spank or use other forms of physical punishment to control their children. So they opt for using a time-out. They know it’s important to hold children accountable for their behaviors, and they use time out as a consequence of the choice the child has made.


These adults believe that placing a child in time out will make him think about what he did wrong and learn not to do it any more. They believe that the child will stop hitting in frustration after having enough opportunities to sit and think about hitting. They believe he will learn to pick up his toys, stop throwing sand, and start using kind words because he sat in his bedroom long enough to figure out why he was there.


One assumption made by these parents and caregivers is that time outs get children to behave the way the adult wants. Another assumption is that because it appears to work it’s effective. But what if these "positive" outcomes aren't what they appear to be at first glance? What if there are negative effects from using time out as it is being practiced today? What if it’s actually counterproductive to achieving the goal of raising responsible children? Perhaps it’s time to call time out on time out and examine it more closely.


Consider: As it is often practiced, time out is used for control. It is used as a threat. "If you don't stop that, you'll go to time out." It is used to punish. "Okay, that's it. You go to your room." When you use time out in these ways you're teaching children that those with the power have the right to control others. You’re showing them that might makes right and that the bigger gets to dominate the smaller.


Consider: Children being controlled by the threat of time out may indeed change their behavior. But when they do, the motivation to change is external. The child hasn’t been asked to think for herself or given the chance to internalize the need for a new behavior. Nor has she been taught any new behaviors. What she learns is to behave when the adult is near in fear of punishment. But she doesn’t behave when the adult is not present because she hasn't learned to behave from the inside out. She is behaving only from the outside in.


Consider: When time out is used for punishment, it often creates resentment and encourages revenge fantasies as children direct their anger and blame at the parents. They scheme about how to get even rather than contemplate alternatives to the behavior that got them the negative consequence. These feelings serve to disconnect them from the family rather than bring them closer.


Consider: Many parents make it understood that their child is being sent to time out because he or she has been naughty or bad. When you send a child to a specific area because he was "naughty" and make that clear to him, you send a message to the child that he is bad, that he is naughty. This use of time out attacks the character of the child. It wounds the spirit and brands him as being that way. It results in feelings of low self-esteem and creates core beliefs of "I am wrong," "I am not worthy," and "I am naughty."


Consider: Time out as it was originally designed was an attempt to give children time to cool down. It was to provide a safe space and time for a child to calm herself. Creating time and space for a child to calm down so she can think is the first step toward creating an internal standard, an inner authority that guides the child's behavior. It is a move toward control from within rather than from the outside.


Consider: A time out is something one takes or is given when one needs a break from their surroundings. When an adult is overworked and feeling stress from their job, they take a time out. It's called a vacation.


When you're so angry that you can't think, you remove yourself from the situation and come back later when you can think clearly. That's a time out. When you come home from work exhausted and sit down on an easy chair for fifteen minutes, you're giving yourself a time out.


A time out is what we need when we're sad and want to be alone. It's what we need when we're hurt and don't know what to say. A time out is what we need when we're confused and don't know what to do. It is what we need when we're frustrated and don’t know what we want. A time out is an internal rest area where one goes to collect oneself, to reenergize and get ready to address the problem at hand.


Consider: Children also need time to calm their minds and relax their bodies when they're frustrated. They need a break from the world around them when they are yelling or angry. Children need an opportunity to get themselves ready to learn a new skill or face a problem. They need time to get back into a solution-seeking, problem-solving mode.


Consider: A time out is not to be used as the punishment piece of a discipline technique. It is the time a child needs to get into the right frame of mind so he or she can learn how to manage anger, curb aggression, or use a different set of words to express disappointment.


Consider: A child will only learn to manage his behavior when he is in the frame of mind that allows him to do so. Managing behavior, comparing possible outcomes, understanding consequences, choosing among options, and creating choices take place in the area of the brain called the frontal lobe. When your daughter is throwing a tantrum, she is not in her frontal lobe. Nor is your son using his frontal lobe when he's yelling, "I hate you."


When your child demonstrates physical behaviors such as hitting, kicking, biting, throwing objects, stomping feet, and swinging arms, she is in tantrum mode. Such behaviors are not generated in the cortex where the frontal lobe is located. Yelling, screaming, crying, and other emotional behaviors are generated in the limbic brain, which assists in managing emotional content and is not typically a problem-solving area. It’s important for parents, educators, and daycare providers to recognize these behaviors and understand that children are not in an appropriate mindset from which to engage in learning a new skill, solving a problem, or understanding the cause and effect relationship of the choices they have made.


Consider: To discipline a child in the middle of a tantrum or during an emotional outburst serves no useful purpose. The role of the adult at this time is to help the child pass through the tantrum or emotional phase and move into a behavior management and problem-solving mode.


The appropriate use of a time out is to provide the time and space a child needs to move into his frontal lobe and thus into a mode of thinking conducive to learning how to manage behavior. The time out is not the learning phase. It is not when the teaching occurs. Time out is the getting-ready phase, the recollecting-one’s-thoughts-and-feelings phase. A time out is provided for a child to give her several minutes of solitude in a calming place, allowing the brain to slowly shift into higher cortical thinking and frontal lobe activation. When the child has made this transition, then and only then is the process of holding her accountable and teaching her how to do it differently next time appropriate.


Consider: As practiced across the country today, the standard amount of time to be in time out is correlated with the age of the child. For a seven-year-old, the rule suggests the child should sit in time out for seven minutes. We disagree.


Some individuals move into the behavior management and problem-solving mode of the brain faster than others do. For some children it could require only seconds, while for others it may take thirty minutes. Give your child whatever time he or she needs to get ready. That is the most effective use of time out.


Consider: Most parents allow children to return to the family group or resume their activity after they have stayed in time out for a specific amount of time. Time out used in this way becomes synonymous with "doing time." Once you've served your sentence, you're free to go about your business.


Consider: If time out is indeed used as a gift of time and space, it is the time after time out that becomes the most important. This is when you follow up by teaching a needed lesson, debriefing the previous scenario, and creating plans for next time. Use the time after time out to help your children learn to manage their behavior through the guidance and instruction you give them. This will help them develop a better understanding of the consequences of their behavior. They will be more receptive to suggestions on how to correct their behavior. They will feel more empowered and more confident in being able to manage their behavior in the future. They will come to see themselves as capable, responsible people.


If you want your child to see himself as a responsible and successful person, to learn to get along with the group (family), to build positive relationships with others, and to increase feelings of connectedness with you, stop using time out as a punishment. Use it as a positive interruption of an undesirable behavior so the child can calm himself and be receptive to the guidance, instruction, and lessons in accountability that follow.


Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of Teaching the Attraction Principle™ to Children: Practical Strategies for Parents and Teachers to Help Children Manifest a Better World.  They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for parents. To sign up for it or obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their website today: www.personalpowerpress.com

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