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I'm Tracy 

I'm the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world.

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Why I’ll Never Give My Son a Time Out

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

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

Was this proof that time outs work? The answer depends on how we define success; on what we’re trying to achieve as parents.

Do we want to train our children to be blindly obedient? 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 wonder what my friend will say 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 bitten my lip many times 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 and hiding from parents. Stories of toddlers begging or hitting or resorting to any means necessary to avoid being put in 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 outs are a gentle, progressive approach to children’s behavioural issues.

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

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 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.

1. Because love isn’t love unless it’s unconditional

Time outs communicate that love is conditional; that we love our kids when they’re ‘good’, but not when they’re ‘bad’. When we intentionally send them away and create disconnection, they begin believing that they’re not worthy of unconditional love. We’re telling them that when they’re ‘bad’, they’re not welcome in our presence. That’s a horrible feeling for any person to experience in a relationship, let alone a child.

What is unconditional love? It is loving our kids for WHO they ARE, not WHAT they DO.

Most of us only have a handful of relationships where love is truly unconditional; where others accept us for who we ARE, rather than who they would like us to be. Our kids are born loving us unconditionally – it is a fragile, powerful gift that deserves to be nurtured and treated with respect.

We must never mess with unconditional love – a temporary modification in behaviour doesn’t come remotely close to being worth risking our children believing that we love them more when they’re ‘good’.

“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

2. 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 our kids are already experiencing. Our children lose their dignity, while 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, 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 also acknowledge that most behaviours are developmentally appropriate, even though they may be frustrating at times. But that’s what we signed up for! We’re the grown ups here.

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.

3. Because I need to meet me 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 our kids 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 which 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

4. Because attachment is a lifeline, not a bargaining chip

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 secure attachment: the most powerful force in human behaviour.

When we send children into a time out, we lose their trust and weaken their attachment to us. Ironically, we also forgo an opportunity to strengthen attachment even further. Our culture is a bit mixed up when it comes to attachment! We’re told if we pick our babies up too much, we’ll spoil them – nothing could be further from the truth.

So, if you’d like to learn more about creating a secure attachment with your child I’ve created a FREE GUIDE, The 5 Myths Surrounding Attachment You Can Safely Ignore as a Parent. I’ve also created a course all about attachment, The Attached Child, learn more here.

5. 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.

Also, what message does it send them about our abilities as parents? Maybe our kids will start to doubt that we’re able to help them. Maybe they’ll start to think that Mum and Dad, don’t really have this.

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’re having a rough time but I’ve got your back and I’ll show you a better way”? Who will say “No matter what you do, no matter what you say, I will always love you the exact same way”?

6. Because I want my son to find comfort in people, not things

Time out withdraws our 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

Kids don’t need perfect parents, they need conscious parents

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 feeling 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 with our kids.

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 as it is ingrained in our subconscious. Practice self-compassion and focus on intentionally making different choices in the future. Building connection

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.

I created another FREE guide which is all about creating connection, you can download it here: The 5 Natural Parenting Secrets That Make Kids Want to Cooperate (No Time Outs, Threats or Punishment Required!).

To learn more, read my post: How To Avoid Using Time Outs (And Other Punishments)

Hi there!

I'm Tracy

Hi there! I’m Tracy - the founder, writer and advocate behind the award-winning blog, Raised Good - a guide to natural parenting in the modern world. Based in Vancouver and originally launched in 2016, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response and the global community that’s developed. 

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  1. Olivia says:

    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.

    • Shelly says:

      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.

    • Lori Lewis says:

      “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!

    • Carla Cram says:

      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!

  2. Rachel says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I believe there is a right way to do time out. Bringing the child to you (never away)immediately when they are being disruptive and naughty, taking them out of the situation. Sitting them near you allowing them to calm down and then talk through why they need the time out and how they are feeling, what they need to do next (saying sorry/pick something up that’s been thrown) and give them a hug at the end. Hope this helps you understand the best way to do time. But if you prefer chaos that’s fine.

  3. Victoria says:

    I think time outs when you explain to your child that this is time for them to calm down if angry and have a think about why they are angry aren’t negative especially if spoken in a calm and stress free tone. Sometimes children 3-5 can’t actually explain why they are cross and need a moment to think. In these instances ‘time outs’ or ‘ thinking time’ what ever we call it can work well.

  4. Mrs G says:

    Sometimes I send my 3 year old to his bedroom because he misbehaves. It’s the simplest way to defuse the situation, putting a physical barrier (just like we have a safety gate in our kitchen). And it usually work, especially with my multilingual child whose verbal skills are definitely beyond his monolingual peers. He doesn’t totally understand instructions and explanation, nor he’s able to ask questions, so I need an alternative.
    However I disagree with this article. I love my child unconditionally but I don’t unconditionally approve whatever he does. So he needs to know it. I would raise a spoilt and entitled child if I would approve him unconditionally.
    We have a strong attachment, he shows love and affection multiple times a day (he watches cartoons sitting on my lap) and we cosleep quite often. When I collect him from preschool he runs to me with a big smile and he gives me a hug. So I don’t think that sending him away to his room breaks the attachment.
    I also think that feelings are valid, that they need to be expressed but it’s important to learn how to express them, without exaggeration and of course this is different according to the child age.

    • Tracy Gillett says:

      Thanks for your comment Mrs G but I promote positive parenting alternatives to sending children away – behaviour is so superficial and while we can modify behaviour its so important to teach emotional regulation. I agree that passive parenting is not helpful but neither is authoritarian parenting – taking a proactive approach is best. A book you may find helpful is Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids by Dr Laura Markham which explains great techniques to use with various age kids without the need to send them away.

  5. Julie says:

    I get that time outs aren’t great, but how about some suggestions of how to deal with our energetic little ones instead of just telling us we shouldn’t do it?

  6. Carla Cram says:

    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’….

  7. Bri says:

    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.

    • Tracy Gillett says:

      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.

  8. Alanna says:

    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

  9. […] ”Why I’ll Never Give My Son a Time Out” – În caz că mai era nevoie de explicații despre cât de mult rău pot face pedepsele. […]

  10. Anna says:

    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.”

  11. Jana says:

    I have 2 kids very close in age. 3,2. They are both very loved and cherished. Both behind on speech ( I believe it’s due to multiple languages that we speak at home). Both kids are very adventurous and like to explore. My younger is so independent she would walk away and not look at where I was for hour or more. What do you do in a situation that one child wants to go to a playground on one side of the park and the other to the other one? Now please remember I try to explain but I feel the younger one is not understanding what I am trying to explain. She kicks and screens if she doesn’t have her way. “She is very very loud”. We end up following her around with my older son who is a sweet boy. He follows us because he doesn’t like being alone and he also worries for his sister to be alone so as she runs away from us he runs after her. I feel bad for him since most times we ended up doing and going to where our little 2 year old leader is taking us. Most friends expressed that my kids need time out or other forms of punishment not just me explaining. My wife family tells me they are misbehaving and I allow them to do too much. The truth is my son out of nowhere started to listen ( I feel he likes to please us and it was a sudden change around his 3 Rd birthday until then he behaved very much like his sister now). When I listen to what people say or see that my children really are not listening to me much I get angry and snap ( makes me feel really bad afterwords):( …. how would you handle this? I keep trying to find s way that my children especially the younger one started to listen more. ??

  12. Angie says:

    I like your explanations for why timeouts are not ideal, but you don’t really offer any other options for dealing with children when they aren’t listening or are misbehaving. Would you be able to offer some insights as to what you suggest as an alternative to timeouts? Thank you!

  13. Constance says:

    We have naturally taken a positive approach to parenting our son in general. We also have never used time outs. He started kindergarten this year and they are heavy with the time outs, color coded behavior charts, etc. We have been successful at stopping the behavior charts, but having a hard time with their use of time outs. Thoughts on how to handle school-based punishment approaches you don’t agree with?

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