Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do you want a time-out?

I was at the park the other day with my daughter Kayley when I overheard a parent say to their child, "Do you want a time-out?"

While this parent may have had good intentions, I find this tactic to be less than an optimal way of helping children grow up to be the good people we want them to become.

The question "do you want a time-out?" is not a fair question; in fact, t's not a question at all because even if the child replied "no", I doubt any parent who is subscribing to time-outs in the first place would honor their children's denial of the time-out. At worst "Do you want a time-out?" is a rhetorical question -- at worst (and much more likely), it's not a question at all -- it's a threat.

And there's a reason for this; because time-outs are only "effective" when there's an imbalance in power (always in the adults favor, of course), parents must impose their will upon the child to get them to do whatever it is they want the child to do.

Because our words matter, it is really important to know where the term time-out came from: Time-out is short for time-out from positive reinforcement. In theory it was designed and implemented by behaviourist B.F Skinner on rats and pigeons, but today in practice it's used by parents on their children.

Skinner's work with time-outs had one goal: control animal behavior.

Let's take a quick look at all three words.

Firstly, a whole boat load of research around controlling parenting can be summarized by Gordon Thomas:
The more you use power to control people, the less real influence you will have on their lives.
Secondly, it should concern us greatly that behaviorists see little to no difference between doing things to animals and humans to make them behave. I think we should all think long and hard about whether we are okay with subjecting our children to something that was designed on rats and pigeons.

Thirdly, misbehaviors are the symptoms of much larger problems. When we choose to treat the symptoms we ignore the underlying issues that require our real attention. There is a big difference between simply wanting a misbehavior to stop NOW! and working with kids to ensure they don't feel the need to misbehave in the first place or again. It's the difference between treating a fever with cold baths and Aspirin versus addressing the pneumonia that caused the fever.

Time-out is sold as a daring departure from the status quo when actually it is an intensification of the timeless punishments that have always failed us. After all, how would you like to be forcibly isolated from your peers in front of your peers?


  1. This parent was obviously approaching them completely wrong. But time outs work really well in our house with our girls, 5 and 3. And I used them very effectively when I taught kindergarten and 2nd grade as well.

    One thing I learned from teaching young children is that if you lean too much on explaining the reasoning behind the poor behavior, why it's inappropriate, etc., then after awhile they tune the words out and just figure out the right thing to say to make you shut up. That's not so good either.

    So clear, consistent time outs followed with love/short clear explanations (with modeling) and a quick return to fun/joy work well.

    And misbehaviors are not always symptoms of much larger problems, especially in young children.

  2. Steve, what do you believe a time-out is a time-out from?

  3. 1 .Imho the right approach to time out is to teach the child how to step back , take some chill- out time in order to calm down so they can rejoin the group. In time the kid will learn to do this by himself. Traditional time-out no matter how short is perceived by kids as a consequence/punishment, so this valuable life skill is lost.
    2. T.O = love withdrawal followed by a message of love teaches kids that punishment is an expression of love
    3 T.O teaches kids to think about what will be done to them if they do something wrong rather than focusing on the impact of their behavior on others.
    4 T.O moves the focus to the punishment and the parent/teacher's ability to impose his will
    5 Check the reaearch done by Lepper , SDT researchers that internalization of the message is lost when we use extrinsic motivation
    6 I agree that ' talking does not help ' , only when it is the teacher/parent doing the talking. In the constructivist tradition we should be asking questions, helping kids reflect in an environment which unconditionally accepts kids even when they screw up.
    7 Kids will not look for excuses or be in denial if there is no punishment, but we set them up to engage in an autonomous way in restitution and making amends.
    8 When we don't use T.O, we can call misbehavior a mistake, just as we can all make mistakes , we can fix them - the focus is on the future
    9 The plus for kids in T.O is that you have paid the price, all you have to do is not get caught again
    10 The method of time outs withdrawing privileges is essentially negative: I can't communicate with you, and so I'll hurt you if you don't mind me. The positive counterpoint is: We all make mistakes, and you can trust me to help you do better in the future

  4. Joe, I think the term has certainly morphed since Skinner used it. A time-out as I've seen them used is a break, a pause, a moment to step away. I'm positive that I've never used the term to mean a time out from affection, love, or away from positive reinforcement, behaviorally speaking. I'm not sure how or why the term has changed meaning, but I suspect it's use as a sports term has contributed a lot to the shift.

    I'm not particularly tied to the term "time-out." It's a noun to me- not a verb or something that is done to children. You can call it a break, a pause, a moment of reflection, whatever you want I suppose. I honestly can't remember what I used to call this time with my kindergarten and 2nd grade students (not even sure it even had a name). The term doesn't have as much power as the process you're doing with the child in question.

    In our house, we use time-outs as an opportunity to let them know that what they're doing is unacceptable, make sure they know that even though they made a mistake we still love and support them, and then follow up and model the appropriate behavior. Doing this consistently with love/patience and not allowing tempers or sarcasm to flare is very effective.

  5. Imposing time outs on kids can be quite a challenge for parents and still kids see it as punishment. What happens when a kids refuses to do a time out ? force him - bribe him = kids gets a sticker for doing a time out without arguing.
    So to make it easier for parents and for kids to swallow, the time out rule is one minute per age of the kid.

    Instead of time out, we can simply ask a kid if he thinks his behavior is appropriate, kind or considerate , redirect him etc or if need try to problem solve addressing his concerns as well

    Steve ,
    your second post really confuses me - do you or don't you use time out? If a kid misbehaves what happens next ?

  6. I had a very interesting day at school today.

    In Chinese class, some people were talking, so the teacher sent them out of the class for 5 minutes (I guess this is sort of like a time out). The only problem is, most of the people don't want to learn a foreign language (they're only doing it because they have to) and those people would much rather talk. This kind of time out allowed them to do both of these things so it was actually more of a reward than a punishment.

  7. I second what Steven is saying. In theory "time out" can be made to sound miraculous or positively barbaric. The reality can be exactly what Steven describes. The young children I know can even express that they feel out of control and can't stop themselves-- they need a supported break from a situation that makes them feel powerless.

    I frankly disagree that young children misbehave because of underlying problems. Children are learning what works for what they are seeking. We teach them the answer to that. That is not an underlying issue, that is the perfectly healthy, natural state of being.

  8. I like time-outs. I like the notion of stepping away. In our house, I'm often the one who chooses a time-out, but it's something we all do. Often it is a choice my children make.

    Sometimes it's directed by my wife and I. However, we preface it with, "You're not in trouble. However, tensions are high right now, you hurt your brother and he needs some space." It's a step away. It's a chance for diffusion. However, the goal is always to reach reconciliation.

    The other difference is that we typically sit with our children in time-out (unless they simply want to walk away for awhile). It's a chance to talk about the behavior without potentially feeling shamed by the others in the room.

    That being said, I don't do time-outs as a teacher. However, I do pull kids aside for quick chats about behavior. So, on some level, it's a part of how I deal with discipline in-school as well.

  9. Allen-

    Not sure where the confusion is. We do use time outs in our house. We use them if the behavior is particularly unsafe, hurtful, or rude. For small things we redirect. They're always followed up with modeling and hugs.

    Of course, the point is to be consistent with things so that all that is needed is redirection and conversation when they get older. Our 5-yr-old maybe has one time out every couple weeks now and is doing really well with how she treats people and things with respect and care. Our 3-yr-old, well not as much yet. She probably gets a time out once every 2-3 days, but she's learning how to treat others and is coming along.

  10. The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who readily acknowledged that the version of negative conditional parenting known as time-out can cause “deep feelings of anxiety,” nevertheless endorsed them for that very reason. “When our words are not enough,” he said, “the threat of the withdrawal of our love and affection is the only sound method to impress on him that he had better conform to our request.”

    So I am very careful not to confuse parents and don't use the word time-out , maybe time-in with kids or just help them calm down , shift gears etc. When sitting alone kids don't reflect on what they did , rather on what has been done to them.

  11. I can agree that everyone, young children in particular, sometimes need a break or clear boundaries lovingly enforced.

    The way I MOST often see the "time out" used, though, is the way that Joe describes - as a way to control, to make a child stop, and is often preceded by the dreaded counting ( 1... 2... 3 okay, that's it, you're in TIME OUT!)

    Steve, what I hear you describing is something different though, I think. But I have one question - do you send the child AWAY from you to sit alone? Because as soon as you do, that child doesn't see that as an "opportunity" to learn how to calm down. They experience that as being sent away from their beloved parent (or teacher or...) because they've been "bad." Your love is being withdrawn from them until they are "good" again (bestowing love and hugs on them AFTER they are calmed down).

    I purposefully don't use the term "time out" because of the way it's most often used and the connotations that come with it. I DO however, sometimes enforce a calming down time or a moment away (particularly with my rambunctious 5yo) - where I let him know we need to calm down and I go find a quiet spot to sit WITH him. We cuddle, practice taking deep breaths, sometimes hum for a moment - and, once calm, rejoin the others and discuss what was going on, whether each was kind and respectful, what could help each feel better right now and alternative words/actions we could have chosen.

    I see it this way: in any conflict, we all need to be emotionally present before we can problem solve. So what does each person involved need in order to be calm and ready? Do that. Then we can learn together.

    The bonus to this approach is that it's valid no matter what age you are or what situation - so it's a life skill we model and teach right from the start. The "time out" - well, that might have an effect on a small child, but don't try it on a teenager and certainly not with your coworkers, boss or spouse!! :-)

    Thanks all for the conversation - it helped me clarify my thinking and approach!

  12. We have three kids, ages 13, 11, and 7. To date we only have had two rules in our house: 1) be nice and 2) be safe. They've served us well.

    I think Heidi has it right. The word that should be emphasized here along with 'time out' is the word 'you.' It's far, far different to say, 'Hey, let us take a break' than it is to say 'Do you want a time-out?' The former means you sit together, get calm, work stuff out, and then back you both go. The second inherently carries with it isolation and finger-pointing.

    I understand Steve's point and I'm sure he implemented time-outs with love and care and kindness. But so much of it depends on tone and intent. I'll take a break with someone I care about anyday but ask me to 'time out' my perceived negative behavior and my hackles are up. And I'm no longer 3 (at least physically)!

  13. Joe, I enjoyed this post. I work with the Positive Discipline Program which is a non punitive approach. Positive Discipline advocates Positive Time Out which is a very different concept than punitive time out. Positive Time Out is based on what we know about the brain - that when we are stressed or upset that the brain goes into stress mode, our prefrontal cortex virtually shuts down and we go into fight or flight mode. Teaching kids about this and teaching them that they need to calm down before they can rationally solve problems is an important life skill. Positive Time Out is not imposed like punitive time out. It's something a child can choose to do on their own. I've an article about it on my website if you or anyone else is interested. Just click on the Resources tab. Thanks for this.

  14. Some kids prefer to calm down alone, some prefer the company of a parent.

    Joe mentioned that misbehaviors are symptons of underlying problems. For sure they can be symptoms of an unmet need or poor coping skills.Whether behavior will be considered beyond the norm and challenging will depend on the frequency and intensity of meltdowns or looking bad. Behaviorists see misbehavior as learned, working for a kid to get what he wants. So we need to use extrinsic motivation like time out to make a kid ' wanna' want to behave they way we deem fit. The collaborative problem solving approach cps- sees misbehavior as a product of lacking skills, when the demands placed on a kid outstrip the skills he has. The lacking skills are taught indirectly by addressing both child's and parents's concerns finding mutually satisfying solutions

  15. Thank you for this post and the excellent discussion. I find myself saying things to my children, like, "Do you want to go sit in the van?" And as soon as it pops out of my mouth I know it is such a silly thing to say. I wouldn't say something like that to my classroom and I know better than to make empty threats, but that knowledge doesn't always transfer into my life at home.

    This post has really made me think about my actions and words I use with the most important children in my life, my own.

  16. Good conversation, here. Makes me think and that's always good. =)

    Just want to make sure I say we don't isolate our children, ever. We definitely sit with them if they need help or better strategies for calming down. Our older child has gotten really good at calming herself down and 80% of the time she's right there trying to help calm our little one down if she gets upset. That makes us feel good because we feel like we must've done at least one thing right with her! ;)

    Scott, your rules remind me of my own class rules when I taught. We had just three (after I figured out that the more rules you have, the less effective they are):

    1) Pay Attention (not to me, so much- to themselves, their peers, and the world around them)
    2) Work Hard
    3) Be Happy

    Sometimes I still struggle with the first two myself, but #3 is one I've got a good handle on!

  17. If time-outs are collaborative between the parent and child - and are pre-planned and agreed upon beforehand by both parties, then they aren't really time-outs as defined by Skinner and Supernanny.

    Heidi, I really enjoyed the comment that you made about being emotionally present to solve problems. That's pretty powerful.

    this is great discussion. Lots to learn by talking about a topic that can be kind of uncomfortable.

  18. I hate it when my dad asks questions that don't really seem like questions I'm allowed to answer. The problem is it's very hard to tell, so I just wait till he keeps asking for one so I know I can choose to say no or not.

  19. If a time-out is really just a break to step away from the moment, it sounds to me like an efficient way to deal with that is to buy them an ice-cream and have them talk about what they were doing and why they think they were doing it.

    ofc if they don't want to talk about they don't need to eat some ice-cream :P And if they truly don't then you should leave them be until the want to, because it may be something bigger than a simple temper tantrum and they don't feel comfortable talking about it at the moment.


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