As with so many questions regarding kids and discipline, there is no sure-fire answer to this question. Experts on both sides of the debate agree that time out does work for some kids and doesn’t work for others. And some parents are great at implementing it, and others are not. What experts do agree on is that it can be a good tool in a parent’s discipline toolkit, if done correctly.
When a child is misbehaving, most parents and experts would agree that removing the child from the situation is a good idea. It allows the misbehaving child a chance to calm down and redirect and allows the other children a chance to continue their activity without distraction. It also allows the parent or caregiver a chance to explain to the offending child what he or she was doing wrong and the expected appropriate behavior.
Here are the key ways to ensure time-out works according to proponents:
- Parents have to talk about appropriate behavior often with children, not just when things are going wrong. Without this prior knowledge, children have no idea what they have done wrong that warranted a time-out.
- Use them sparingly. They can’t be used for every infraction or they become ineffective. Like any discipline issue with a child, choose your battles wisely.
- The length of time should be appropriate to the child, the child’s age, and the nature of the infraction. Many proponents recommend one minute per year of age, but it’s probably more effective if the time-out is matched to the offense. It’s not fair to have the same punishment for both small and large problems.
- Talk to the child when time-out is done. This is the time to reassure the child that you love him or her no matter what, but that some behaviors are not acceptable. Keep it short and to the point.
- Never threaten a time-out and not do it. This will completely undermine the parent’s authority. Even if the situation could be embarrassing, it’s better to follow-through every time.
- If a child throws a full tantrum, bites, kicks, or screams, be prepared to follow-through no matter what. If not, the child has learned what to do to get the parent to give up.
Those who disagree with the use of time-outs have strong arguments as well. They point out that the tactic is often used inconsistently and is therefore ineffective; they also note that toddlers often have no idea why they have been placed in a time-out. They argue that if the child has no idea why the punishment was given, that the punishment doesn’t serve any purpose. The main evidence that the child does not understand the punishment is that when most children return from the time away, they repeat the same offense.
Reasons Not To Use Time-Out
- The child might be too young to “get it”. If a child doesn’t understand that the removal from play is related to some misbehavior, the tactic is useless.
- The child resists strongly. If a parent has to force a child to stay in the designated location, constantly return the child to the punishment location, or fight the child to even get there, this form of discipline might not be appropriate. It could turn into a constant escalation (more time) where the parent has to keep watch over the child, ending with everyone angry and unhappy.
- Most parents don’t apply it consistently. Many parents threaten it and don’t follow through.
- Redirection works just as well for most kids. Most children respond to being gently redirected to other activities or behavior if given the chance.
No matter where a parent stands on the use of time-outs, one thing is clear: If a child is ruining an event for others or doing something that could cause harm to the child or others, removing the child is the only answer.