“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.
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.