Parenting: Time Outs Are the New Spanking

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I was dismayed to see not one, but two articles on The Next Family website lauding time outs.

Joe Newman’s piece “The Modern Time Out,” while well-intentioned, is suggesting the reader resort to a form of punishment which is damaging to a child’s sense of self, to the parent-child relationship, and, ultimately, to the very goal Newman says he is trying to achieve – teaching a child to regulate his or her self. Time outs are, in fact, so detrimental, that it would not be a stretch to call them the modern parents’ spanking. I have no doubt that an enlightened generation hence will compare notes about whether or not they were given time outs, weighing the severity of time outs in their various families and (some) saying forgivingly, “That’s just the way they did things back then” or “They didn’t know any better” much the way my generation talks about whether or not we were spanked, and if so, how severely.

Yet we can and should know better. I am not the first person to write about the serious problems with time outs. Amongst many others, Peter Haiman writes eloquently about the severe and lifelong detrimental effects of time outs in his short article here and Alfie Kohn writes about the history of time outs (they were developed according to B.F Skinner’s behaviorist principals and assume and reinforce that all human behavior is motivated by whether it will be rewarded or punished) and cites copious amounts of research – literally dozens of high quality, peer-reviewed studies and all sorts of good science and neurological work detailing not only the harmful effects of time outs but why they are also ultimately not effective.

Parents who don’t believe in corporeal punishment, who don’t even believe in punishment, flock to time-outs. Thanks in large part to shows like Supernanny and Nanny 911, time-outs have become normalized. They seem ubiquitous and are presented, especially on the above shows, as sane, rational, gentle alternatives to all of the fussing, crying, screaming, biting, kicking, hitting, and terrible carrying-ons that the clueless parents of TV have been letting their children get away with.

I know that we as parents have real and sometimes seemingly insurmountable struggles with the difficult behavior of our children. They do things that embarrass us. They do things that make us worry that they will not turn into moral, caring, empathetic adults. They do things that hurt others, or themselves. They do not “obey” us, which can cause us enormous disruption and inconvenience. We are all looking for a more harmonious, easier way to parent and to have our kids do more of what we want them to do and less of what we don’t want.

But at what cost?

Think about why you chose to be a parent, what you hope for your little one as he grows into an adult. Do you really want shame, overpowering, coercion, and force to be your primary parenting tools? Is that the way you want your child to learn to relate when situations become difficult?

Newman begins his piece by suggesting that time outs be used frequently for small infractions “before things get too severe.” Can you imagine how controlled a child who is constantly being punished by exclusion must feel? Anytime this child expresses some sort of dysregulation or upset – the expression of some sort of problem – instead of attempting to find and address the root of the problem, their parent is sending them off to “self-regulate.” Huh? The child is given no tools of self-regulation, no assistance with this process that even we adults have tremendous trouble with, and no help understanding how the dysregulation occurred in the first place. This is pure, authoritarian control at its most rigid and uncompromising.

“I also make an effort,” Newman writes, “to let the child know that he has control over when he stops crying and therefore control of when the time-out starts,” Is that so? A dysregulated child, a child who perhaps truly believes in his heart that he has been wrongly accused or misunderstood, who is railing against injustice or who in the middle of huge or powerful feelings that he does not know what to do with, has control over his crying? When was the last time you cried with frustration, rage, or a sense of abandonment? Did you have control over your crying?

There is also copious research about how children experience time-outs. And as you might guess, if you remember a bit about your own childhood punishments, pretty much the last thing they think about during time outs is how they might not have been at their best and how they might attain greater enlightenment and be their best selves next time around. What they actually experience is anger and frustration with the giver of the time-out, as well as shame, confusion and sadness about the circumstances which created the time out. Contrast this with real meditation (which can be made child friendly and of which the one-minute time out is a tragic mockery), where we choose to reflect in a focused way, and which can actually lead to an improved state of perception.

Interestingly, Newman seems to have stumbled upon something like this in his piece, “Time Outs for Impulsive Behavior.” There he gives an example of a little girl who loves her dance class so much she thinks about it all week and when she gets to the dance class she is too excited to focus. He suggests time outs for this. Uhm, okay.

In this case however, the “time outs” are one quiet minute sitting next to mommy. In attempting to apply the detrimental technique of the time out, Newman bumped into one of the many effective, humane child rearing tools – that of being present with your child in silence and breath. Simply sitting with your child and breathing together or experiencing silence together can be tremendously regulating and is very different from the “time out” that Newman recommended in his previous article and that he was clearly shooting for here.

Perhaps most importantly, time outs place conditions on parental approval and, as the child perceives it, our love. If your child is crying and you are pointedly ignoring her, your child will see that as a withdrawal of your love. Your child will wonder what she did that was so bad it caused her parent to stop loving her. And her sense of injustice will be ignited and stomped out time and again because the punishment will never seem to fit the crime. Not the punishment of one minute of quiet, but the punishment of abandonment – which is what the child experiences. Indulge me with a long quote from Alfie Kohn explaining the concept of love withdrawal, from a section of his book, Unconditional Parenting called Time Out from Love:

Like anything else, love withdrawal can be applied in different ways and with varying levels of intensity. At one end of the continuum, a parent may pull back ever so slightly in response to something the child has done, becoming chillier and less affectionate – perhaps without even being aware of it. At the other end, a parent may announce bluntly, “I don’t love you when you act that way” or “When you do things like that, I don’t even want to be around you.”

Some parents withdraw their love by simply refusing to respond to a child—that is, by making a point of ignoring him. They may not say it out loud, but the message they’re sending is pretty clear: “If you do things I don’t like, I won’t pay any attention to you. I’ll pretend you’re not here. If you want me to acknowledge you again you’d better obey me.”

Still other parents separate themselves physically from the child. There are two ways of doing this. The parent can either walk away (which may leave a child sobbing, or crying out in panic, “Mommy, come back! Come back!”) or banish the child to his room or some other place where the parent isn’t. This tactic might accurately be called “forcible isolation”. But that label would make a lot of parents uncomfortable, so a more innocuous term tends to be used instead, one that allows us to avoid facing up to what’s really going on. The preferred euphemism, as perhaps you’ve guessed, is time-out.

In reality, this very popular discipline technique is a version of love withdrawal…

Newman gives time outs the unfortunate moniker of taking a “break.” That is a bit like calling being fired “taking a break.” Yes, a break is involved, but I hardly think anyone in that situation would choose that term. Calling it a break, and not a punishment is pure semantics. And the worst part is, in all of this punishment, love withdrawal, and forced “self-regulation” we miss the opportunity to uncover the underlying issue. Time outs will never address the root of the problem. Although we will almost always get temporary compliance – making the child do what we have told them to do or stop doing what we have asked them to stop doing, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of needing to address each new problem with new time outs, which will gradually diminish in effectiveness as our children eventually stop trying to win our love back. Further, while we are allegedly teaching self-regulation, we are really teaching external regulation. Time outs may stomp out one specific behavior, but at a cost that I don’t think we really mean to pay. They will not create connection and dialogue, and they will not give our children the skill set of true self-regulation – the kind that occur without drugs, alcohol, or coercion. Time outs will not help our children grow into the kind of adults that we are working so hard to help them become.