The other day I walked by a driveway where a young woman and her father were having a discussion. Or trying to. They were standing near the open door of a car from which came the piercing shrieks of a child who sounded not quite 2 years old. The woman was talking about how she managed her child using the behavioral technique of “time outs”. If this was an example of a time out, I was glad I wouldn’t be around for the next one.
Parents frequently complain that time outs are not working, and will blame either themselves or their kids. As I see it, it’s the method that’s flawed, not the people involved. Time outs involve having a disobedient child sit in another room or off to the side, ostensibly so he or she can calm down, and also think about the misbehavior. It was initially promoted as a non-violent alternative to spanking, especially for younger children. The problem is, however, that young children are not developmentally ready to accomplish those tasks by themselves. While some children are able to soothe themselves at an early age, this is unusual, and generally only applies to minor frustrations. Distressed, frustrated children are not able to calm themselves, and to ask them to do so without the support of a parent or caregiver is not much different than asking them to safely drive the car around the block. We need to teach our children to process their overwhelming emotions – just as we might teach them to tie their shoes or do long division. Out-of-control children are just that: out of control, and learning self-control comes with firm, gentle, and active support, not isolation. The rejection and abandonment young children frequently feel during a time out swamps their attempts to think about the misbehavior. Finally, we want our children to internalize self-control and right behavior, not just behave a certain way to avoid punishment.