“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)