When behavioral psychologists introduced the time-out concept, it was titled: “Time-out from positive reinforcement.” Positive reinforcement means giving the child lots of positive “time-in” with a connected style of parenting. Then if the child misbehaves, this positive parental input is briefly withdrawn. As a result, the child gets used to feeling right when acting right, and feeling wrong when acting wrong. By making the connection between good behavior and good feelings the child becomes motivated to keep his act together. For time-out to work, he first needs a large quantity of quality time-in.
Help your child connect his behavior with the time-out. Introduce time-out early, by eighteen months. Before that age, you will be using distraction and diversion to stop behaviors. Baby crawls toward the lamp. You intercept the curious explorer, carry him across the room and sit between baby and the lamp. After much repetition baby gets the point: Certain behaviors will be immediately interrupted, so there’s no point in attempting them. These baby diversions progress to toddler time-outs. In addition to simply interrupting an undesirable behavior, you now add a place to sit, such as a time-out chair. Time-out in your arms or sitting next to you is preferable if the toddler finds the chair too threatening; but you run the risk he’ll discover the way to get picked up and held is to misbehave. You can avoid this by holding your child a lot when he is behaving well—back to the concept of time-in. Our grandson Andrew, at seventeen months, knew the difference between being held and time-out holding. He protested his time-out holding loud and clear. (If your toddler kicks and flails, you are only succeeding in making him angry.)
Language makes time-out easier. By two years of age most children understand what time-out means—if they misbehave it’s off to the chair they go. They perceive time-out as a break in their activity, a parent-imposed (logical) consequence of their behavior. The older the child, the more detailed the explanation can be. We started using official time-outs with Lauren when she was eighteen-months-old. She had witnessed many time-outs for Stephen, so when it was her turn she understood clearly what we were doing. We could tell by the gleam in her eye and the alert body language that this little ritual was a special experience and she got into the spirit of it willingly. She also knew the ritual included an enforced (though brief) time of sitting alone. Stephen needed frequent reminders, so she knew she was expected to stay seated. As soon as the novelty wore off, she was no longer amused.
TIME-OUT WHEN YOU’RE OUT
You can use time-out anywhere, as long as the place of retreat is unrewarding. For a peaceful interlude during shopping struggles, try giving your child time-out on a bench in the mall, in a boring corner in a supermarket, next to a tree in a park, or consider making an exit to your car. Put your child in the back seat while you doze for five minutes in the front. For safety’s sake, be sure to keep your eye on the isolated child when using time-out in public.
Escort your toddler to the time-out place immediately after the misbehavior. A prompt, cool, matter-of-fact approach aborts many protests. Since you set the ground rules beforehand, you need not explain, apologize, or get wishy-washy about your discipline. If your child senses uncertainty, a protest is likely to follow. Avoid yelling “I’ve told you ‘no’ a thousand times. Now you go to your room and don’t come out till I tell you to.” This abusive style pushes anger buttons in the child, putting time-out into the revenge category and canceling its behavior-changing purpose. Keep the time brief—around one minute per year of age. For older children you can make the time fit the crime: “That’s a five-minute time-out.” When our kids were into hockey they better understood this mode of discipline: “Five minutes for pushing!”
This is not the time for your child to be screaming, or for you to be preaching or moralizing. If there’s a lesson you want your child to hear, save it for later when he’ll be open to it.
“Two minutes” is meaningless to a child under three. A stove timer or alarm clock makes a more lasting impression and helps you keep track of the time. When the signal sounds, it simply announces that time’s up. Let the child decide his next course of action. He may still be contemplating his behavior when the buzzer sounds. No need to break his thought by saying “You can come out of time- out.” He’ll get the point by himself.
You may have a designated time-out chair or stool for the toddler. A veteran mother in our practice successfully uses the “naughty step,” an idea she gleaned from the book THE POKEY LITTLE PUPPY’S NAUGHTY DAY (Golden Books). The naughty step helps the puppy to feel a little less “frisky” that day. For the older child, try using her room. If you are away from home, use any spot that removes the child from the scene of the crime. Oftentimes it’s the actual removal of the child from the place of misbehavior that makes the impression rather than where, or how long, the child sits or stands. Be sure the time-out place doesn’t have built-in rewards. To make the point, the retreat needs to be a boring place. The TV is not on for time-out!
Sit with her, and if necessary keep putting her back physically and give her the message “I’m the adult here. We are taking time-out.” If the time is short enough and you are calm, there would be no reason for her to protest. If she screams about it, she stays until she’s calm. If children rebel at the negative sound of time-out, use positive terms that fit the situation: “You need a little quiet time,” or “thinking time” or use the child’s name, “Lauren time.”
For time-out to work for the older child, he may need an explanation of what “time-out” means. Use a basketball game on television as a teachable moment: “See what the coach does when the team is falling apart. He calls time-out. This lets the players cool off and think about how they can play a better game.”
This all seems so sensible, but remember, children may not think logically until around age six. If you can’t sell your child on time-out, invoke your parental power. Give your child the message that he is going into time-out no matter what, so he might as well do it, get it over with, and get on with the day. For the child over five, add extra time for resistance: “Five extra minutes for protesting,” announces the referee. If the child still refuses, pull out your reserves: grounding and withdrawal of privileges (such as TV for the rest of the day or week)—whatever has worked in the past. Give the child a choice: “You can either stay in your room for ten minutes or be bored the rest of the day.”
Time-out gives your older child a chance to reflect on her deed, and it also gives you a chance to cool off and plan a strategy. While your child is in time- out, judge whether the misbehavior is a smallie that’s over and done with and needs no further discipline or a biggie that needs more intensive care. If it’s a biggie (she hurt another person), after giving her a few minutes to cool off, say something like: “I want you to think about what you did. How would you feel if your friend hurt you?” Some children know intuitively the mental exercises to go through during time-out, but many do not. This is not a time for preaching or haranguing, rather matter-of-factly tell your child how you expect her to spend the time-out period. The most lasting impression is made when the child realizes the consequences of his actions on his own. That’s self-discipline.
Time-out for parents. Time-out can be a retreat for mom. When our children are not really misbehaving but simply showing the childish behaviors of normal, noisy children, Martha says, “I need time-out.” She makes sure the children are in a safe environment and no one is getting hurt, goes into another room, ignores the noise, and regains her peace. A parent time-out also helps when you are playing a game with your child and he is becoming obnoxious. Announce that you had been having so much fun, but now you are not. “I’m going to go over and sit and read my book until you’re ready to play nicely again. Let me know. I’ll come back and we’ll enjoy the game together.”
Sometimes there are situations when your child is playing or yelling in a disturbing way, or being incessantly clingy despite the fact that you have given your maximum of “time-in.” Tell your child that you need some peace and quiet. Martha announces this by authoritatively stating, “That’s disturbing my peace .” These messages help children respect the rights of others in their environment. Even parents who have learned to tune out noise can only take so much.
After the time-out is over, it’s over. The child has served his time and it’s time to get on with the day. Convey to him that you now expect him to play nicely and quietly. Possibly orchestrate a new activity.
Toddlers and young children often get very engrossed in their play. If there are a lot of children and a lot of toys in a small space, they get overstimulated and rev up into a play frenzy that gets out of control. This is not only intolerable to human eyes and ears, but it is also counterproductive to your child’s play. If you sense that the play is getting out of hand, call a halt to the action before it gets out of hand or before you feel annoyed by it. Remove a few of the toys, separate the children, or change activities. It might be a time to sit the children down and read a five-minute story—a sort of half-time interlude in a boisterous game.
When several children are in a room and the behavior is deteriorating, it is often difficult to know who is the ringleader. Sometimes you simply have to separate everyone. Direct them to separate chairs, spaced out around the room, for five minutes before they can resume a calmer play activity. Sometimes it’s necessary to put more space between them—one child in a time-out chair in the kitchen and another child in the living room. Though they seldom express it, children oftentimes appreciate caregivers rescuing them from themselves. They may recognize when they need relief. Once during a play frenzy, one of our children retreated from the battle and came into our room to announce “We need time-out.”
Time-out is not a punishment; and it seldom works when it’s used that way. Used as a punishment, it is called “benching,” like a hockey player benched in the penalty box for misconduct. Time-out calls for a break in the undesirable action. It stops misbehavior and gives the older child, and parents, time to reflect. Instead of viewing it as a jail sentence, the older child should be taught to view it as a way of getting herself under control: a few minutes to reflect on what went wrong and how to make it right. Whether you call your strategy “time-out” or “benching” is often psychological semantics. The real issue is does it work? When our two-year-old is disruptive at the dinner table, we plant him on the nearby piano bench for two minutes. Oftentimes, just the warning “piano bench” is enough to stop his misbehavior. In this case, we call our strategy a “reminder.” Between two and three years of age, most children can understand the concept of “time-out.” One day our two- and-a-half-year-old, Lauren, after being pestered by her brother, said, “Stephen pushed me – time-out.”
Not only does time-out help children behave, it also helps parents. Time-out stops misbehavior and gives you time to plan your next move. It prevents parents from impulsively spanking. “I need time-out,” revealed a mother who had been spanked as a child. She recognized that she was prone to impulsive anger and was in danger of striking her child impulsively when he “pushed her buttons.” Realizing her vulnerability, she found time-out gave her a chance to cool off so she could return calm and collected to handle the conflict.
Time-out works better if it’s used to shape behavior rather than punish. Picture kindergarten teacher Miss Goodchild plunking impulsive Johnny on a stool in a corner facing the wall. This doesn’t do anything for Johnny except set him up as the center of attention and make him a prisoner, angry at the situation and at the person imposing the sentence. I can still remember the “time-outs” imposed on me at school. I was a problem child, especially in the early grades. In second grade, the teacher used what she thought was time-out on me, but it didn’t work. She would set me in the corner on the time-out stool. She was using humiliation and it backfired. It only encouraged me to continue my attention- getting antics. This teacher couldn’t handle me, so I was prematurely promoted to the third grade. There I came under the firm hand of the school’s best disciplinarian, Sister Mary Boniface . She gave me clear messages and made sure I knew what behavior was expected of me and what the consequences would be if I disobeyed. She also gave me a lot of attention eye-to-eye contact with her hand on my shoulder. She showed that she genuinely cared for me as a person and was going to be sure that I learned how to control myself. When I looked as if I was about to get out of line, she would place her hand firmly on my shoulder and press hard enough that I would get the message. Of all my early disciplinarians, Sister Mary Boniface was the one I respected then and remember now.