Why I’ll Never Give My Son a Time Out

Life

“I’ll count to three buddy and if you don’t stop I’ll give you a time out”, said my friend. His words had more of an impact on me than on his three-year-old son.

He seemed relatively unfazed, but by the time his dad counted to two he stopped what he was doing and complied with his wishes.

Was this proof that punishments such as time outs work? I feel the answer depends on how we define success; on what it is we are trying to achieve as parents.

What do we trade when we prioritise obedience over our children’s needs, mistakes or messy emotions?

I’ve been in this situation countless times. I start to feel anxious as I wonder whether my friend will disapprove when I choose a different approach if my son shoots a water pistol inside or drops a toy off the deck.

Out of respect for social etiquette, I’ve repeatedly bitten my lip as I’ve observed young children being threatened by or subjected to time outs. I’ve listened as others recount stories about what they perceive to be the comical consequences of time outs.

Tales of children running away from parents. Of toddlers spitting and hitting and resorting to any means necessary to avoid a time out. These stories break my heart because the culturally encouraged habit of time out sabotages parents who have nothing but the best of intentions.

We’re lead to believe that time out is a gentle, progressive approach to children’s behavioural issues.

But, the truth is, the theory of time out is at odds with what we now know about healthy brain development.

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The popular practice can be traced back B.F Skinner, a Harvard Psychologist, who argued that humans don’t really think (and presumably feel) – that we merely respond to environmental cues. As a result, he believed that both children and adults could be trained through conditioning using positive and negative reinforcement. It was a simplistic view that, in his defence, was a reflection of the society and era in which he lived.

But, as science-based evidence accumulates and modern day experts in child psychology are unanimously against punishments such as time outs, we owe it to our children to dig a little deeper, to improve our understanding and have the courage to challenge mainstream parenting dogma.

So, as my son happily plays with his friend, I contemplate why my parenting choices deviate so significantly to conventional approaches. After all, from a social perspective it would be much easier to follow the crowd. But, when we know better we can make different choices. So, here are half a dozen reasons time out will simply never be an option for our family.

BECAUSE LOVE IS UNCONDITIONAL

Time out communicates love is conditional; that we love them when they’re ‘good’, but not when they’re ‘bad’. When we send them away and create disconnection, they begin believing that they’re not worthy of unconditional love.

If we’re lucky in this life, we have only a handful of relationships where love is truly unconditional; where others accept us as we ARE, rather than who they would like us to be. It is a fragile yet powerful gift that deserves to be nurtured and treated with respect. A temporary modification in behaviour doesn’t come remotely close to being worth risking this unique treasure.

“Stay connected and never withdraw your love, even for a moment. The deepest reason kids cooperate is that they love you and want to please you.” Dr. Laura Markham, Author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids

BECAUSE CHILDREN CAN’T BEHAVE WELL IF THEY FEEL BAD

When our children make mistakes they don’t feel good about themselves. In that moment, parents have a choice; to teach or punish.

If we assume the worst in our kids and choose punishment, we magnify the intensity of the negative feelings they’re already experiencing. Our children lose dignity, while potentially feeling rejected and shamed; this is a toxic cocktail of emotions.

A child who experiences this on a regular basis begins believing that they are bad and so they will act badly. They begin believing that they can’t behave well on their own and therefore rely on the authority figure to “make” them behave.

Rather than finding ways to make children feel bad about their behavior (which is often developmentally normal, albeit frustrating), let’s focus on teaching our children how to correct a mistake. How to clean a mess. How to cope with the emotions associated with a broken toy.

Let’s focus on our children’s unique capabilities; on encouraging problem solving and conflict resolution. Let’s model empathy and compassion so that our kids can thrive because when a child feels good, they behave well.

BECAUSE I NEED TO MEET MY CHILD WHERE HE IS

Young children are incapable of regulating their emotions. Why? Because the human brain doesn’t fully develop until our mid twenties. The neural pathways they need to navigate strong emotions are still under construction.

So, when kids experience intense anger, sadness, frustration or even excitement, they can easily feel overwhelmed, anxious and scared. This is when they need us to help them by externally regulating their emotions for them, to teach them that all feelings are valid and to help them feel safe to express their messy emotions.

Using a time out robs us of this opportunity because it isolates children when they need us most, leaving them drowning in a sea of big feelings. Their only option is to enter a fight, flight or freeze mode; none of these are healthy methods for coping with difficult emotions. And none of these states allow for learning to take place.

“The issue is that we have to start where the child is, not with where we believe the child ought to be.” Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Author of The Conscious Parent

BECAUSE ATTACHMENT IS A LIFELINE 

Our world is changing at a rapid rate; it scares me to think about the challenges my son will face as a teenager that simply didn’t exist for me. While I appreciate that we can’t wrap our kids in cotton wool, we can provide a safe haven, a place where they will always feel free to be themselves.

In his legendary book, Hold onto Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld suggests that if we want to give our children the best chance of navigating the choppy waters of society, we as parents, need to become a stronger influence in our kids lives than their peers. How do we achieve that? Through attachment: the most powerful force in human behaviour.

When we send children into a time out, we lose their trust and weaken our attachment. Ironically, we also forgo an opportunity to strengthen attachment even further.

BECAUSE IF I CAN’T ACCEPT MY CHILD WHEN HE’S AT HIS WORST, WHO WILL?

Sending a child into time out communicates that we can’t handle them. That they are too much for us. That we don’t like them in that moment. How terrifying must that be for a child? To feel alone at such a young age.

Of course, parenting can feel impossible at times and when our children push our buttons it’s easy to snap. To crave a respite and a few moments to calm down. Sending our kids into time out may seem like an inconsequential action, a quick fix that buys us some time. But, in their dark moments, if we’re not willing to be their allies, who is? Who will stand by them and say “I know you don’t know what you’re doing but I’ve got your back and I’ll show you a better way”?

BECAUSE I WANT MY SON TO FIND COMFORT IN PEOPLE, NOT THINGS

Time out demands withdrawing affection when our children’s behavior displeases us. But, when a child needs comfort and we refuse to give it, their need doesn’t magically disappear. They’re forced to seek comfort elsewhere.

Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, says that addiction shouldn’t be called “addiction”. It should be called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking”.

The term is enough to bring tears to any parent’s eyes. Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on things for comfort; on sugary sweets, screens, alcohol and drugs. Let’s reverse this trend and send our children the very clear message that when they need comfort they can come to us and that we will never send them away.

“Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior.” Gordon Neufeld

INTENTION IS WHAT MATTERS, NOT PERFECTION

Living in our modern society is demanding. Most households require both parents to work and sometimes it’s our kids who bear the brunt of our stress and frustrations. It can be easy to snap when we’re overwhelmed. To reach for a quick fix, promised by authoritarian techniques like time out. But, they create disconnection that can have negative long term effects on our relationships.

If you have used conventional discipline techniques in the past, there is no judgment here. Most of us were brought up with punishments and rewards – it is normal to repeat what we learned and is ingrained in our subconscious. Practice self compassion and focus on intentionally making different choices in the future.

Positive parenting techniques are the antidote. By applying simple principles to bond with our children to make them feel safe and secure we’re setting the stage for them to grow into cooperative, independent and confident adults. If you haven’t taken it already, I’d love to invite you to join the FREE Natural Parenting Superpowers course (link below) where we focus on practical steps to build a rock solid connection that naturally leads to cooperation.

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COMMENTS
  • August 03, 2017
    Olivia

    Thank you so much for posting this article. It was a much needed read and I must admit it brought me to tears. I had tears of happiness as it resinated with me, and tears of sadness as I have resorted to time outs when I’m frustrated. I never wanted to do that as a parent, but in the heat of the moment or out of feeling helpless or frustrated I have responded using it (I feel so disappointed and angreh with myself that I have resorted to punishment instead of praise).

    I want my daughter to feel like she can come to me no matter what, but I worry that by being so hard on her I have eroded that close relationship we once had.

    We have recently had another baby which is making me exhausted now that I am breastfeeding for the first time(our first wouldn’t latch). I find that my time is now so consumed with our second always being on the breast and needing me that I have little time to connect and play with my first.

    We get little to no help from my family and friends so we are pretty much on our own…

    Our first child is an amazing girl. She is creative, smart, funny, and has so much compassion and empathy for a three year old. She is an amazing sister and I wouldn’t have her any other way. The only thing that gets my heart racing is that she is extremely energetic and free spirited. I know this is a good thing, but my anxiety often kicks in as she tests boundaries to the extreme (I have had to race after her as she bolts out the door without hesitation and goes strait for the steet).

    I feel so pressured by my friends and family to do something if she starts acting “wild” and free. when my family gives me looks or makes comments saying she is “bad” it breaks my heart. I have low self-esteem brought on from my childhood, and I don’t want to repeat the same on my child. I want her to listen so that she won’t get hurt (often times I’m questioning if she can hear me at all).

    I would gladly take any suggestions or articles that can further help so that I may become a better mom that she needs and deserves.

    My apologies for such a long message, but I feel like your article was the starting point of going back to the positive parenting approach that I had wanted to following in the first place,
    So for that I thank you.

    • August 06, 2017
      Shelly

      Sounds alot like my situation. My newly 5 yr old basically ignores us as well. Then cries when we turn something off or put something away even tho we told her literally 2 or 3 times right before.

    • August 07, 2017
      Lori Lewis

      “Wild and Free” sounds adorable in a puppy and expected. Why isn’t that the same with young children? Worrying about what ‘the family’ will think about your parenting skills is pretty stressful. I would stop that immediately. This is your child to raise. You do sound like you could use some help, but I would try to find that outside the family/friend network. If you cannot afford to hire help, then consider a barter situation. In order to spend more time with your children, hire out the manual labor – cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, yard work, etc. Take trips to places where ‘wild and free’ is totally acceptable – a beach, a trail, a big park. Bikes are great. Running strollers are great. Movement is awesome for you and your kids. It’s a great big world out there – enjoy it!

    • August 07, 2017

      Wild and free is the aim. Our children should not conform to society’s previously held beliefs and values. Why? There is no solid reason, it’s just assumptions, biases and beliefs that haven’t been challenged. Your child will get more from exploring and being ‘wild’ than from being perfectly behaved. You’re a wonderful parent! ignore them!

  • August 07, 2017

    I love this, and good old Skinner. He is also responsible for positive reinforcement, sticker charts, rewards etc, intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic. Very difficult to explain to some people who believe in it, but it is scientifically flawed and recently trained psychologists/teachers/social workers all say ‘no more Skinner’….

  • August 08, 2017
    Bri

    Maybe it is the way the time out is given. I need time outs regularly (or like I say.. time to breathe and just be). If it is given as a punishment then I see your point. But, if the parent moves the kid away from the kid he/she hit, bit, or took a toy from, and sits with the kid during the frustration/tantrum (I still call that a time out) then is it really a punishment?

    I personally think there are 2 extremes and the middle road is a much better place to be. We can be too much of a pushover or too strict and neither one does our kid any favors.

    • August 08, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Agree Bri – passive parenting is certainly not the answer either. What you describe is a time in which is a positive way of doing a time out. Being with the child to help them learn and guide them through messy emotions is so helpful. I’m writing a follow up post that will cover time ins.

  • August 10, 2017

    I love this article! It clearly describes many reasons why we need to teach, practice and support our children when emotions run high, instead of punishing them. We may not think of timeouts as punishment but it does feel this way to our children. Brain science says that punishment or social rejection feels the same as physical pain. “Where did we get the crazy idea that in order for our children to do better they need to feel worse first?” – Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline

    • August 10, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you SO much for sharing this Alanna and couldn’t agree more xx

  • August 18, 2017

    Great article. Saved it to read again. I like the point that said “If we assume the worst in our kids and choose punishment, we magnify the intensity of the negative feelings they’re already experiencing.”
    Anna recently posted…Best Personal Blender Review – 2017 Guide

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