I’m going to divide this blog into two sections. In the first I’m going to talk about why it’s not good parenting, and I will provide you with references where other parenting experts (far more experienced than I am) have explored this. In the second section I’m going to look at what we can do instead, what can we replace this with?
This second part is crucially important. In my teaching role as a Parenting Educator in New Zealand, I saw a rapid shift in parenting techniques as soon as Section 59 was repealed (this removed the ability to plead that a parent was using reasonable force to correct a child’s behavior, and has been – incorrectly – labeled, the “anti-smacking” law). Suddenly, parents who had not carefully examined their parenting style and it’s impact were thrust into an awkward situation. They had no idea what to do. If they couldn’t smack a child then what could they do? The government never thought to back up the repealing with so good advice and community support that could help these parents. Instead these parents (in the main) turned to Parenting Pop Culture and the self-appointed queen of it, Super Nanny. Ahh, Super Nanny got results, she didn’t hit, in fact she told parent not to. But she did use this cunning technique called “Time Out” or “The Naughty Corner/Step/Place”. Parents got this, one minute for each year of their life, they have to stay there, put them back if they come up, explain why they are there and expect, nay demand, an apology at the end of the allotted time. Simple, not much gaffing about there. No psycho-babble, quick and effective. Just like a smack. Even parenting “advocates” all around NZ advocated Time Out, even the most prominent ones have and STILL do. I was told by someone within one of these organizations (this was at the beginning of my anti-Time Out conversion, because I too once upon a time thought it was ok) that even though the powers that be knew it was wrong, and knew that it was damaging, we talk about it and provide guidelines for it because that’s what people want. Sound familiar? Think about breastfeeding, crying it out etc etc… these organizations know about the research but do very little to promote it. It’s a parenting hot potato, they don’t want to touch it, and I would say they also don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, the public and the government in the form of lucrative contracts. But that’s by the by, this is about *why* I’m calling Time Out on Time Out.
Whats so Wrong with Time Out?
Time Out, in part, as much as all other Pop Parenting advice, stems from Behaviourism. Which in a nutshell is positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement. Think Pavlov’s dogs. So, we reward what we want and punish what we don’t want. Time Out is a punishment. It is the withdrawal of all love and affection. It is the banishment. It conflicts with a basic human “need to belong”. Super Nanny advises us to ignore the child whilst they are in Time Out, to make sure that they are in a safe area so you won’t have to intervene with them too much. In this state the child can imagine what life would be like if they “cease to exist”. Imagine how horrifying that is to a child. It’s absolutely devastating to adults, think of when you have experienced social exclusion. Scientists have been able to demonstrate that the pain of social exclusion lights up the same centers in the brain as does physical pain. Your love has ceased to be unconditional, it has become conditional. Your child is experiencing pain, on a par with physical pain when you put them into Time Out. I have to wonder, and this may seem crass, but why wouldn’t you just smack them? It would achieve a similar result? And this is just reason number 1 for me.
Let’s go back to the suggested technique. The child is placed in time out, for the requisite time and is instructed to think about what they have done. This requires a basic understanding of consequences with a clear head. I did this, then this happened, someone got upset/angry/hurt, something got broken etc etc and this happened and now I am in Time Out, I don’t like Time Out, therefore I won’t do it again. Seems fairly simple right? Wrong. That’s quite sophisticated and requires an understanding of consequences that children simply don’t have until they are about 8 or 9 – or even later. Why you ask? Have you ever asked an adult to perspective take, put themselves in another person’s shoes when they are angry? Sure, yes I understand that you were angry that Jimmy stole your toy/car, but Jimmy was tired of waiting for it and you weren’t sharing and that’s no reason to hit him, go to Time Out and when you come out you will have to say you’re sorry. Sure, yes, America, you’re angry that the Middle East has lots of oil and you are tired of waiting for it, but that’s no reason to invent WMDs and bomb them into submission, now go to Time Out and when you come out you will have to say sorry. Ok, so maybe the analogy requires some more sophistication and less political posturing, but I’m fairly sure that most of you get what I mean. When we are angry we are not capable of thinking straight, we go back to the basic fight/flight/freeze mechanism. So, they are full of emotion and then we banish them and expect them to think clearly without any assistance at all?
Lastly, but by no means least I want to address the “apology” aspect of the Time Out technique. Somehow we think that by forcing a child to say sorry at the end of time out, after they have “thought” about the consequences, then we have achieved something and things will go back to normal. Seriously? Which would you rather as an adult, a sincere or forced apology? If you are forcing your child to apologize when they have not even been helped to see the consequences you are not only not empathizing with them, or guiding them, but you are asking them to lie. Remember that as an adult it can be extraordinarily difficult to say sorry. Our children find this hard as well. Frankly, it can be embarrassing to admit that we are wrong and children feel this too. When children are genuinely sorry you will know they are from several cues, their body language of “shame” – head lowered, gaze aversion, trying to look small, will be screaming I feel silly and I’m sorry. You can help with this by acknowledging the body language and asking things like “You look like you might be feeling sorry, is that right?” You can even ask if they are having difficulty with it. Once, when my daughter was struggling with this I asked her to imagine what saying sorry looked like. She said a bunch of flowers and a hug. She simply could not speak the words with her voice, so instead she chose to speak with her body and express her apology with a hug. One day, she will feel brave enough to say it too, but in the meantime I am happy with a genuine hugging apology on her terms rather than a forced uncomfortable one on my terms.
So, by this stage I’m hoping you have rethought Time Out! Just in case you still have questions though, and even if you don’t I highly recommend reading the following posts which helped me along my way:
What’s the Alternative?
There are many MANY alternatives to Time Out. We need to remember that discipline is about the teachable moment, about connecting with our child and about helping them with self regulation. Remember that discipline comes out of love, and that all your parenting decisions need to come from this. Your child needs to feel unconditionally loved even when they have done something wrong, even when they seem most unlovable.
So what can we call this? How can we re-language our discipline techniques to encompass connection when parenting? I like the term “Time In”. So what would the rules for “Time In” look like?
- Both the child and the adult engage in Time In
- We stay in Time In, we stay connected till all the emotions have been heard and regulated – there is no time limit.
- We work together on this, and we accept that either or both parties have responsibility for what happened.
- Time In is a place for unconditional love and honesty. It is not a place for judgement or punishment.
- Time In is a teachable moment, for BOTH parties.
- Time In can happen anywhere, it is not a step, it is not a seat, it lives in our heart, it is when we are in time with our hearts.
So, I challenge you, toss out Time Out, and come in, to Time In. I guarantee you will find love in it.