When my oldest was 1½ he did something that forever changed the way I viewed time out (and discipline). In about 15 minutes time he was able to dump out every toy he had and spread them all over the living room as if they were part of the flooring. (I’m sure this does not shock you if you have young kids.)
I had been a parent for no time at all, but thought I had all the tools I needed to successfully handle this situation. I walked over to my little boy, got down on his level, and said, “you need to pick up your toys or you will go to time out.” I stood up confidently, expecting him to rush over and start picking up each toy and putting them back in their designated bins. (Total ignorance on my part.) But instead, my son, more confidently than me, stood up and walked himself over to the ‘time out spot’ and sat down. Without even saying a word, he told me, “mom, I don’t have to pick up my toys. I will just sit in time out and you can pick them up. This is the much easier choice and I prefer to have the control, thank you.”
Let’s be honest, if someone gave you this choice, clean up the kitchen or sit in time out, what would you rather do? I thought so! I’d gladly sit in time out too.
I realized on that day that if I chose to use time out in my parenting arsenal, I better know the time and place to use it because it certainly wouldn’t work in every situation.
If you are going to use time out as a method for discipline, there are a few simple guidelines that can ensure it is effective.
Before talking about how to use time out, let’s talk about the meaning of discipline first.
Discipline is about teaching, guiding, and helping your child(ren) learn to make good choices.
It is not about making threats or punishing every behavior that is undesired. Although that can be tempting at times. This is the big picture though right? When you’re in the trenches, the big picture can become a bit blurry.
What about those times when you’ve reached the end of your rope or the everyday moments like when your toddler throws a toy at your head or lays himself on the floor of the grocery store screaming.
At these moments it is hard to think clearing and use any sort of discipline effectively. Instinctively you may go straight to time out as your first line of defense.
Time out has become a norm in our society for a way to discipline a child for almost anything. However, in many instances time out can be overused or used incorrectly, therefore making it counterproductive.
Let’s look at how to use timeout and what not to do.
The purpose of time out
The purpose of using time out is to give your child (or yourself) a break from a certain situation, activity, or space to demonstrate to your child that the behavior he is displaying is not acceptable or safe in that time or place.
Timeout is not a way to make your child do something or to be in control of your child. (Trying to control your child will almost never work.)
Different types of time out
The most popular form of time out is probably excluding a child from something. For example, placing your child in his bedroom to cool down or “think” about want he’s done that was inappropriate.
Removing your child as a way to get desired behavior is a form of time out. You may call it something different, such as “cool off time”, “think time”, “bedroom time”, etc. No matter what you call it, the purpose is the same.
Exclusion timeout can be very effective if the child is doing something that could hurt himself, someone else, or something.
It makes perfect sense to remove a child if it is not safe for them to be in the space they are in.
I often use this method if my child is being very disruptive, hurting a sibling, or hurting some of our belongings such as toys or books.
An example of non-exclusionary timeout is when you take something away from your child, such as taking a toy because your child is not using it the way you had asked.
If your child is drawing on the table instead of paper, taking the crayons away will solve the problem very quickly.
Another example is ignoring the behavior that is happening.
This works very well for annoying behaviors. This does not mean that you are constantly letting your child get away with bad behavior. It means you are choosing not to give your child the attention they are seeking for the undesirable behavior. For example, if your child is repeating a word over and over, rather than telling them to stop for the hundredth time, simply ignore the behavior. It will stop much quicker if they get no response than it will if you continue to scold them.
One type of non-exclusionary timeout that I use often is removing my child from an activity and having them sit out to watch.
This happened just the other day. My kids were riding their bikes and my youngest child continued to go over by the concrete stairs. I calmly went over to get him and had him sit next to me for several minutes while he watched as his siblings were riding safely in the area I had asked them to. The punishment was missing out on riding his bike, but he also learned how to ride safely. This type of timeout is very effective.
When not to use timeout
Don’t use time out to increase good behavior.
Time out is a punishment. If you are trying to reinforce good behavior, you can reward the desired behavior rather than to punish. For example, if you have reminded you child to pick up their clothes off the floor after getting dressed each morning, try praising your child when it done correctly rather than only noticing and punishing when the task is forgotten.
Don’t use time out for avoidance behaviors.
Similar to my example with picking up toys. Time out does not work if you want your child to do something they do not want to do. If you want your child to finish their food, clean their room, brush their teeth, time out is not the best method. Your child then gets to sit quietly somewhere rather than doing whatever it is they didn’t want to do in the first place.
We’ve all been there though, right? “You need to take 3 more bites or you’re going to time out!” The kid thinks, I’ll just go to time out so I don’t have to eat 3 more bites. If I child wants to avoid a behavior, they will choose to go to time out every time.
Don’t use timeout dramatically or give lots of attention.
Very few words or reactions from you is best. If you talk, explain, scold, etc., you will lose the effectiveness of timeout. The removal of place or privilege is the punishment. The screaming and scolding will take away from the actual punishment. Stay drama free. Use a very simple explanation ” I am going to put you in time out because you are… and that is not safe.”
Don’t use timeout as a last resort.
Be purposeful with the use of timeout in your home. If you overuse this punishment you will find it to be a complete waste of time.
I am not going to pretend I use time out effectively every time. There are times when I just don’t know what to do and this seems like my only option at that moment. There are times when I need a break to calm down before deciding on an appropriate consequence so I give my kids some time out space so I can have a little time out of my own to regroup. It’s okay to mess up and not be perfect at discipline. The point is to keep learning and strive to find the right techniques for you and your family so you can all thrive.