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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The importance of time out

Okay, I admit it. That title is a con job. It suggests that I'm a fan of using 'time out' as a disciplinary strategy for children. I'm not- though in the interests of full disclosure I admit I used it myself 25 years or so ago, when it first became popular and I was a stressed-out working mum looking for answers.

'Time out' is what the experts used to tell us to use when kids pushed us past the point of no return, when they didn't respond to discipline, when we'd lost our rag with them, when we wanted to force them to stop and think and cool off. I suspect that those experts were subtly trying to tell us that there was an alternative to spanking.

And truly, time out is better than hitting your child. It's way, way better than losing the plot and shaking a baby. It's a million miles better than escalating physical punishment to the point where a child ends up in hospital. Or dead.

Let's not forget that.

Though perhaps we've been sending the wrong person to time out all these years. We're the adults; we have a hope of sorting out our feelings if we give ourselves a time out. A child who's sent to time out- well, they just don't have the experience yet to do that.

In the punitive days, we maybe called it the Naughty Step or the Naughty Corner; I'm not a big fan of that word 'naughty', either. It's awfully easy to label children's reactions to their inconvenient feelings as naughtiness. (Inconvenient feelings for us, that is. For the children themselves, they're probably inevitable feelings.)

That's really a power play. It's a cheap shot, getting your power kick by controlling a child with labels. If you need to feel powerful over a child, if you can't respect their humanity, you're reading the wrong blog. This blog is about respecting the children in our care.

(No, I'm not saying you have to strike the word 'naughty' from your vocabulary. Just be careful to label the behaviour, not the child, if you must use it.)

Perhaps we tried to sweeten 'time out' by labelling it the Quiet Space, or the Thinking Chair- but whatever we named that 'time out' strategy, we were making a point of letting that child know that right now, we didn't want their company. There was something wrong with them. They were Too Hard.

Time out was, essentially, the barbed wire fence at the edge of our unconditional love. Behave like that, and I put you outside the fence.

It's a bit of a dinosaur now, 'time out'. These days many of us recognise that there's something a little dodgy about isolating a child in a moment of anger (ours or theirs). These days many of us realise that it's more constructive to interact with an out-of-control child and acknowledge their emotions, if we want the solution to be more than a momentary Band-Aid. (You can read about some of my own strategies with out-of-control children here, and here. Or you can just go to my behaviour management page for all the relevant links.)

These days, I'd much rather put myself in 'time out' than a child. It's one thing to put yourself outside the barbed wire fence when your emotions are out of control; that's a considered decision by an adult, and often a wise decision. It's another thing entirely to put a child out in no-man's land with their big emotions, when they don't have the knowledge and experience to analyse what's going on. That teaches children one of two things- to stuff their big emotions away, or to lose trust in unconditional love.

I'll whack a label on my own forehead any day- angry, out of control, unacceptable, inappropriate- and go away till I've calmed down. But what can a child do with a label like that, whacked on their forehead by an adult?

They can accept it, I guess. I'm unacceptable. I'm inconvenient. 

What, you expect them to distinguish between themselves, and the emotion, and the behaviour that came out of the emotion? How are they going to make those sophisticated distinctions out there on the other side of the fence all by themselves? That's what leads to the stuffing-down of feelings. And stuffed-down feelings are either going to explode one day- inconveniently, inappropriately- or they're going to make that child ill.

Or they can reject the label. You don't understand. You don't care how I feel. Instead of calming down, that child will be angrier, sadder, more frustrated. You'll see that a lot in older children, when you punish them and put them outside the barbed wire. That child will hesitate to share feelings next time. That child withdraws, ceases to trust, self-medicates.

No, I'm not a fan of time out, unless it's the adult taking the break. When we start talking about adults and time out, it does become important.

It's easy for me sitting here blogging, with my own child all grown up now and the children in my care handed back at the end of the day. It's easy for me to get a perspective on things- parenting, teaching, caregiving- to weigh and balance approaches, to analyse what might work best in a situation.

It's NOT easy for you.

You're in a whirlwind out there. You've got a million things competing for your attention, a million stresses on your shoulders. Maybe you're bearing the feelings and problems of a whole household as well as your own, and trying to keep your career or job flourishing as well. There's that mortgage hanging over your head, or the rent... How on earth do you do it? How do you stay rational?

You can't, unless you're giving yourself time out.

Yes, time out for the adults is terribly important when you lose your temper, but that's the Band-Aid solution. That's not the 'time out' I mean.

Real solutions come from calm reflection. Real solutions come from considering your problems without a two-year-old tugging your skirt and a 14-year-old walking out the door with her breasts hanging out of her halter top and a partner loading you with their work concerns while you're trying to cook dinner and then the twins start screaming over who gets first go on the PlayStation and when on earth are you going to finish that presentation for work?

Real solutions come from planned time out for adults.

Prioritise it.

And then use it wisely. Sibling rivalry will not be solved by a fourth glass of wine, or a weekend away where you don't give the kids a second thought because this is your time.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have your own down time- not at all!- but the 'time out' I'm talking about is perspective time. Time where you think about the way you can manage problems with your children, without any other pressure.

That sort of time out is important. How can you manage your priorities, so that you get some time out for reflection?


  1. So beautifully put! I shudder that time-outs are still used so readily. It just tells the child that our love is conditional and that we are only there for them during the good times, but when they need us most they are on their own.

  2. Thanks, OPDB. Sadly change is slow to filter through... we have to be patient but persistent, I think.

  3. This was a wonderful post, Aunt Annie! I'm so glad I found it. As you know, I"m a fan of parental time outs, ut one thing that stood out for me in your post was this line: "Real solutions come from planned time out for adults." I think that's a piece I"ve been missing. I have been working to notice when I'm getting overwhelmed or stressed & then giving myself a break. But I have really missed the boat on making these time outs a period of calm & reflection for myself on a regular basis. Thank you! I'm going to check out your posts on "out of control" children as well as my daughter has super intense tantrums & I am sometimes at a total loss when it comes to handling them effectively.
    Wonderful stuff!

  4. Thanks so much, Gina. Your words mean a lot to me as you also have so much wisdom to share.

    It's hard, isn't it, when we're bloggers who put out so much good advice- and then we get a reality check when we're faced with the real child ourselves, instead of the 'theoretical' child. Finding the right answer at that intensely trying moment for that particular child- wow, not always easy, even when we've really worked at building a trusting relationship. We are ALL still learning, and we're here to help each other, not to be gurus on a pedestal.


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