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‘Time-Out’: Self-control vs. punishment

What is the real value of time-out? Writer Holly Jahangiri shares what she learned about punishment from her 18-month-old.

What are we punishing anyway?

When my daughter was little, we learned that “time-out” as punishment simply doesn’t work well. The rule of thumb was “one minute of time out for each year of the child’s age.” That sounds reasonable enough. Set aside a place, tell the tantrum-throwing, misbehaving child to sit there for two minutes, and see what happens. It’s tempting to add another minute each time the child stomps a foot, yells, whines or talks back.

That two minutes can quickly grow to five, or 10, or — the parents finally yell “Go to your room!” so they don’t have to hear any more of it. “Go to your room!” is an effective punishment for the sociable child, like Katie, who can’t stand isolation, but doesn’t work well with the quiet bookworm, like me, who’d just as soon curl up in bed and read or daydream.

Smart parents may throw up their hands in frustration and try a different tactic, such as distracting the child. Not-so-smart parents, after tearing out what’s left of their hair, simply give in — teaching the child that battles of will are won by the most annoying contender.

It’s important to understand the difference between inappropriate behavior, such as breaking all the good china on purpose, and inappropriate displays of emotion, such as throwing a tantrum and screaming like a banshee. It’s not fair to punish a child for what he’s feeling. The emotions may be very valid, and the child should be allowed to express them. It’s our job as parents to teach children better ways of expressing their negative feelings without punishing them for having those feelings. The “time-out” concept is much more valuable when used to teach self-control than when used to punish lack of it.

Stock your arsenal with self-control skills
During a visit with my grandmother when my son William was about 18 months old, we learned the real value of teaching “time-out” as a tool for self-control. We were on our way to dinner — five of us, ranging in age from 18 months to 89 years — when my son started to whine.

Normally, he’s a pretty easy-going kid, so this was a bit of a novelty. And we understood, up to a point. We’d done some sightseeing earlier in the day, and I guess he’d finally had enough of riding around in a rented minivan, doing what the “grown-ups” wanted to do. But after 10 solid minutes of his caterwauling, we were all at our wits’ end. Even his great-grandmother, who thought he was the “perfect child,” was ready to tell him to “put a sock in it.” The volume went up; the tone and pitch were akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. We were caught in traffic with no place to conveniently pull over. His big sister Katie couldn’t comfort him. He just wailed louder when she tried. Exasperated, I told everyone to just ignore him. Amazingly, as we got quiet, he started chanting “My-my-my time-out! M-m-my time-out! My time-out!” At first, this was a pretty emphatic, out-of-control sort of thing, accompanied by heaving sobs, but we were fascinated and didn’t intervene. No one in the car had mentioned “time-out.” His breathing was pretty ragged from crying, but he started to sound calmer.

“My time-out, my time-out, my time-out.” He started to breathe normally, his voice lowered almost to a whisper, and he got a dreamy, far-away look in his eyes. “My… time… out.” He sighed. His expression was pleasant. He smiled at his sister. He smiled at us. He was fast asleep by the time we got to the restaurant. When he woke up at the dinner table, he was pleasant company. The transformation was amazing, and he did it without any help from us!

“Time-out” belongs to the child. It’s a skill, a tool and a way to cope. As William said, “It’s MY time-out!” Give your child a safe place for taking a time-out. Let your child whine, scream, stomp her feet, grumble, punch the floor, whatever — within the boundaries set for “time-out.” Instead of “Take a TIME-OUT!” say “You look like you could really use a time-out. Why don’t you sit right here until you’ve got yourself under control.” Say it with sympathy, but walk away and enforce the boundaries. “You’re welcome to come over here if you’re ready to talk or play quietly. If you’re going to fuss, that’s OK, but you need to stay THERE.” William was able to create his own “time-out” space without ever leaving his car seat.

My time-out!
Mommies and Daddies need “time-out” sometimes, too! Sometimes, when our nerves are frazzled after a long day, all it takes to light our shortened fuses is kids being kids. When the normal level of bouncing off the walls makes you feel like screaming, try taking a “time-out” for yourself, instead. Teach your children that “I need a time-out” means that you need to go to your own space and be left alone for a little bit. If you’ve helped them master the “time-out” skill for themselves, they’ll understand. If you haven’t, you may have to lock yourself in the bathroom to get a moment’s peace! But do it before you snap at your child for acting like a child.

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