In Defense of the Time Out

Lately the Time Out has gotten a bad rap. Parents are mad at the Time Out. Time Out, parents say, is not working. Kids are not scared of the Time Out. Kids are using the Time Out to catch up on rest.  Time Out is failing parents and children. Time Out is for wimps.

I disagree.

For my family Time Out has been a valuable technique and I believe that if used correctly, most families could benefit from it. Here’s why:

When my now 11- and 14-year-old children were younger, I had many conversations with other parents about disciplining children. What works and what doesn’t, why we choose certain techniques, and what we hope our kids would get out of it.

The Time Out was consistently among the most controversial, not because of what it does but because of how misunderstood it is. Parents routinely told me that in a Time Out the kid “just sits there” which didn’t seem like a good punishment for the misdeed that he had done. But what was overlooked is that if done properly, the kid is not “just sitting there” nor is the Time Out a form of punishment, but rather a learning tool.

1-2-3 Magic, a popular parenting book that I’d used over the years, borrows the Time Out concept by removing positive reinforcement. When the child misbehaves (some forms of misbehavior have the 1-2-3 warning; others merit an immediate consequence), she is removed from the situation.

Jo Foster of Super Nanny, admittedly not my favorite, used the Naughty Chair in place of a Time Out, where the acting out kid was placed while the show’s editors spliced together a smoother family environment for the closing segment.

My technique for the Time Out consisted of giving the child a warning. Then, if she continued to act up, I’d tell her to go to a time out. Because once she was sitting in that chair, the offensive behavior could not continue, and she could take a breath. I know what you are thinking: if the behavior that you want stopped is screaming, yelling, or being otherwise disrespectful, what is to prevent the kid from carrying it on from the comfort of a chair?

That is definitely a valid concern and the answer may not be immediately satisfying. But in my experience, the act of removing the child from the situation, walking her over to the chair and asking her to sit down often gives the child enough of an interruption to get her off the tantruming track. If not in the immediate moment, then sometime down the line.

I found that my children reacted well to knowing that there was a space where time would, in essence, stand still. A place where they could suspend whatever it was they were doing to get them there and search for a different way to react. Sometimes they would pout, sometimes they would seethe, sometimes they would sit quietly.

I used to use a timer, a minute for each year of age, for the time out, but eventually I looked to my children for guidance. I could see when they were calm enough to emerge from the time out, when they were ready to address what had transpired to land them there.

The time out worked for me too. Because unfortunately I was never able to be the kind of parent who takes the “oh, well, kids will be kids!” approach to child-rearing. Often when my kids misbehaved, I felt myself on the brink of losing my temper, of yelling and acting in ways that I didn’t think were my best parenting. So it’s fair to say that I needed a time out as much as they did.

Time outs are not perfect, and certainly don’t work in every situation. But they are worth considering and experimenting with.


For more of Marinka, visit her personal blog Motherhood in NYC and The Mouthy Housewives, where she doles out advice as though it were candy. Mmm … candy. Also, follow her on Twitter, where she never refers to herself in the third person, but does have a potty mouth. Sorry!

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