One of the most popular "discipline" (that is, teaching) methods parents employ is the "time-out". This typically consists of responding to a child's challenging behaviour with the direction that he or she should sit somewhere boring and free of distractions for a set amount of time to "think" about what was wrong with said behaviour. After that period of time, the child will supposedly be remorseful and will also have learned his or her lesson. But does it really "discipline" (teach)?
Because most of us, if not all, have actually used this technique in various ways, I thought I'd make some points concerning the usefulness of it for "teaching" our children the best way to act.
Time out is really a politically correct euphemism for something I'm more inclined to call forcible isolation.
In real terms, time out involves a person of higher power using that power to hand down a sentence of solitary confinement to an essentially powerless child. Time-out is love withdrawal. Here's a snapshot of what researchers have discovered about children who experience love withdrawal via the experience of time-out:
- Children become distressed when their parents threaten to leave them, particularly when the threat is associated with a child's challenging behaviour
- Children will become highly compliant with a parent's requests at the threat of love withdrawal.
- Time-out may be worse than other punishments despite there being no physical threat (or even any material threat). Thus, time-out is more devastating emotionally than other parental power assertions because time-out poses the ultimate threat of abandonment or separation. The parent may know when it will end but the very young child is totally dependent.
- The child who is repeatedly given time-out is far more likely to experience anxiety about love from parents. Time-out leaves kids in greater emnotional distress for longer periods than does smacking!
- Kids who experience love withdrawal through the use of time-out and/or threats of abandonment (even for short periods) also typically have lower self-esteem, poorer emotional health, and are prone to increased challenging behaviour.
Of course a multitude of parenting experts (including many with PhD's in the parenting arena) claim that time-out is the most effective way to teach our kids. But does it really teach? And if so, what does it teach?Time-out is a power-based discipline. The power we have as parents is used to make a child suffer to change behaviour. So time-out certainly teaches that the big person is always right, and even if the big person isn't right, he or she can make the smaller person do unpleasant things. Power is powerful.
Time-out teaches kids that their emotions and behaviours aren't acceptable. Sometimes this may be true as it pertains to behaviour, but emotions are real and need to be respected. They also need to be regulated! Forced time-out is not an effective way to help a child regulate his or her emotion.
Time-out creates anxiety, so therefore teaches children that a parent's love is conditional. Of course this is bound to have bad outcomes for the relationship between parent and child, and also for the feelings of worth the child experiences personally.
I actually think that time-out has some merit when used in one of the two following ways:
First, by giving myself time-out when I become frustrated I am better able to control my own responses to my children's challenging behaviour. They also get the message that I'm upset when I remove myself and often remedy their behaviour without my intervention.
Second, when we give our children the option to go someplace of their choosing so they can work through their emotions we respect their autonomy. The time-out is chosen, rather than being a banishment.
So what do we do instead of using time-out?
Research has shown, again and again, that love-based discipline using reason, empathy, induction, and education, has far more positive effects on changing behaviour in the long-term (though not always in the short-term). Rather than creating a viscious circle where our withdrawal creates emotional distress which then prolongs our withdrawal, which then escalates our child's emotional state there are other ways.
Cuddling a child who is distressed will typically calm him or her quickly. Children cannot be taught when their emotional levels are high. But when calm, they soon become rational.
When a child refuses cuddles we can offer options, but never make threats. As the child sees that we will try to help rather than hurt, emotions can be regulated faster, and soothing occurs.
The move from a power-based disciplinary focus to one of love is a challenge. But our efforts will be worth it - in the long run.