As with so many questions about children and discipline, there is no sure answer to this question. Experts on both sides of the debate agree that time out works for some children and not for others. And some parents are great at implementing it and some are not. What experts agree on is that it can be a good tool in a parent’s discipline toolkit, if done right.
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 the opportunity to calm down and reorient itself, and it allows the other children the opportunity to continue their activity without distraction. It also gives the parent or caregiver an opportunity to explain to the offending child what they were doing wrong and the appropriate behavior expected.
Here are the key ways to ensure that the timeout works according to the proponents:
- Parents often have to talk to children about appropriate behavior, not just when things go wrong. Without this prior knowledge, children have no idea what they have done wrong that warrants a time out.
- Use them sparingly. They cannot be used for all offenses or they become ineffective. Like any discipline problem with a child, choose your battles wisely.
- The time period should be appropriate to the child, the age of the child, and the nature of the offense. Many defenders recommend one minute per year of age, but it is probably more effective if the time-out coincides with the infraction. It is not fair to have the same punishment for small and big problems.
- Talk to the child when the waiting time is up. This is the time to reassure the child that you love him no matter what, but that some behaviors are not acceptable. Be brief and concise.
- Never threaten a time out and don’t do it. This will completely undermine the authority of the parents. Even if the situation may be embarrassing, it is best to follow up each time.
- If a child throws a tantrum, bites, kicks, or yells, be prepared to move on no matter what. If not, the child has learned what to do to make the parent give up.
Those who disagree with the use of time-outs also have strong arguments. They point out that the tactic is often used inconsistently and therefore ineffective; They also note that young children often have no idea why time out has been assigned to them. They argue that if the child has no idea why the punishment was given, the punishment is useless. The main evidence that the child does not understand the punishment is that when most children return from time out, they repeat the same crime.
Reasons not to use time out
- The child may be too young to “understand” it. If a child does not understand that withdrawal from the game is related to some misconduct, the tactic is useless.
- The child resists strongly. If a parent has to force a child to stay in the designated place, constantly return the child to the place of punishment, or fight the child even to get there, this form of discipline might not be appropriate. It could turn into a constant escalation (longer) in which parents have to keep an eye on the child and end up with everyone angry and unhappy.
- Most parents don’t apply it consistently. Many parents threaten it and do not comply.
- Redirection works just as well for most kids. Most children respond to being gently redirected to other activities or behaviors if given the opportunity.
Regardless of the parents’ position 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.