Discipline – the perennial parenting problem. Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989). In our quest to parent effectively, to do the best by our children, ourselves and our family, we think carefully about the best way to discipline our child.
If we use discipline to control, then we rely on reward and punishment to change our children’s behaviour.
This article questions the use of one of the most commonly used punishments – time out. The majority of the parenting books we read, parenting websites, parenting courses, or parents we know, suggest time-out as a benign punishment. Most schools and childcare centres rely on time-out to discipline children.
However, is time-out really the best way to deal with unacceptable behaviour? Or can this form of punishment have damaging effects on our child – and our relationship with our child?
What is time out?
Basically, a child is put in a room or place away from family activity, and is excluded for a certain period of time.
Examples include the ‘naughty corner’; being sent to another room for a minute of each year of life; or being in the same room but separated from family activity. Time out is often referred to as a ‘consequence’, rather than a punishment.
The key points defining time out are that the child has no control around when they are sent away, and when they can return. The parent determines when and where the child goes to time out, and when the child is allowed to return to the family.
The history of time out is intriguing. According to Alfie Kohn (2005) time-out began as a way of controlling laboratory animal behaviour. The term derives from “time out from positive reinforcement”. This means parents must consider what they can limit or withhold, and Kohn suggest that, most often, it will be love and attention. That is, time out means children feel parents withdraw their love for a period of time. Time-out does not seem to have been applied to child raising until the late 1960s.
Modify the environment
Time-out is quite different to those times when we, as parents, may simply need a break from interacting with our child. In that case, we could choose to modify the environment. We may suggest, respectfully, that we each go our separate ways for a short while. Your child may then choose to go to his or her room to calm down, and come out when he or she is ready.
The effects of time out
Time out and isolation, ostracism and self-concept
When a child is excluded from the company of others, they are being ostracised by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers. Children in time out are isolated from relationship (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014).
Recent brain research has discovered that isolating people from relationships causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness. Is time out really a gentle alternative to smacking, when the child has a similar physical experience of both punishments? (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014).
Ostracism (in the guise of time out) is not a benign punishment. If you have ever been on the receiving end of the ‘silent treatment’ as an adult, you will know the shame, the emotional pain, the loss of self-respect, the confusion (what had you done, to deserve this treatment?).
Professor Kip Williams, (Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, Indiana), specialises in studying ostracism in adult relationships. His findings are that ostracism threatens four basic needs – self-esteem, belonging, control, and meaningful existence.
Many adults will have coping mechanisms in place to help overcome the effects of being excluded. But what happens with children? Will they have developed the resilience necessary to cope with social isolation? How much greater is the impact on children of being ostracised by their parents or teachers?
Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room, is often thought to be a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to a room. A common euphemism for this type of discipline is ‘quiet time’. However, William’s work suggests that ‘quiet time’ may in fact, be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’ when in time out. Anyone else in the room ignores their existence. Or they may taunt the child (remember the ‘dunce’s hat’?), knowing their ‘victim’ is unable to respond. Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist . . . how devastating could this experience be for a child?
There seems little research on time-out per se. Kohn quotes research that found “children on the receiving end [of time out] tend to have lower self esteem, [and] have poorer emotional health.”
One study examined how 2- 4 year olds in child-care felt about time out. Most had negative perceptions of their experience, including feeling alone, sad, disliked, and ignored by their peers. Many did not understand why they had been put in time out, believing the reason to be dislike by their teacher and peers. (Readdick and Chapman, 2000, cited by Turner et al literature review, 2007). How then, does time out affect self-worth?
Alternatives to time out
There are many alternatives to using time out. Parenting courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) give parents options on how to avoid using punishments (or rewards). The relationship skills taught in P.E.T. offer respectful methods of connecting with your child, and include: listening to understand your child; being assertive (using ‘I-messages); and solving the problem with your child.
If you find that time out has damaged your relationship, then self-awareness, humility, and respectful communication skills can be tools of repair.
Perhaps another option to ‘time out’ is ‘time-away’. Allow your child a special place to regroup and calm down. Let them listen to music, play, read. Your child can then return when feeling better about the situation and ready to reconnect to the relationship – in the child’s own time.
And don’t forget ‘time-in’ – being with and enjoying the company of your child, giving your child love and attention, remembering what you like about them, and letting them know. Delight in your child.
Our children bring sunshine to our lives. On those occasions when it is hard to see the bright side of being a parent, we may be tempted to use time out. Perhaps being aware of the shadow side to time-out will encourage us to use, instead, skills that enhance our relationship with our children.
To read about other effects of time-out, and to see the references made in this article, see http://parentskills.com.au/blog/trouble-time-out .