I try very hard not to give time outs to my children; I think, in general, they’re a bad idea. What better way to breed anger and resentment in one’s progeny than to stick them somewhere away from you, just at the moment they probably need you the most?
I understand the time-out tactic (or the older-kid version of sending one to one’s room) on a number of rational levels. Both parties, parent and child, often have to take a minute to compose themselves, to let the anger of the moment subside in order to have meaningful dialogue. It sometimes seems necessary, especially with three-year-olds in full tantrum mode, to put them someplace else for a time to restore the collective sanity. But it occurred to me recently, when my 7-year-old lay on his bed in misery, that I never wanted to leave him there too long, at any age. I never wanted him or his brother to have to sit with their bad mood, to build up the sad, lonely, angry thoughts that often occur to one when left to stew alone.
Isolation as punishment is a problem. Solitude of the not healthy kind is rampant in our society, and it’s easy to see why when I myself am tempted to send my children off to distant locales just because it is easier to shun them than to face the difficulty head on. But if members are not willing to stick around and tackle the issues, both families and communities can become fragmented and disjointed. It’s vital that we hug one another, even at times of upset and anger – especially at times of upset and anger.
Take the day when my older son, 9, asked me to get him a glass of water while I was in the midst of making dinner. I stood there, surrounded by obvious duties, as he calmly read Harry Potter, waiting to be waited on.
“I’m sure, darling, you can get it yourself,” I said, mustering all the sweetness I could in my voice, gesturing to the drawer right below his feet where the cups live.
“You’re lazy,” he said rudely, staring straight at me. I could see in his eyes the comment was partly in jest, but I was in no mood to joke.
“Really?” I said. “Really?”
My first impulse was to send him to his room, so I did, shuttling my now-sorry-for-the-comment son determinedly up the stairs while vociferating loudly all that I had done for him and others that day, all that I did for him and others every day.
“Are you still mad at me? Do you hate me?” he sobbed from his bed, thirty seconds into his exile.
My heart softened. “No, and No,” I said. “You can come down:”
Mad as I was, I couldn’t leave him there, crying and guilt-ridden.
He walked down the stairs and hugged me, crushed his little self into my middle desperately and then looked up at me with his big brown eyes. “I’m sorry Mommy,” he said.
“I know, Sweetie,” I said. “I’m just tired and have done a lot and I get upset when you don’t appreciate it.”
He nodded and wiped away his tears. “I know.”
The evening went well after that, everyone tip-toeing around tired Mommy, just like I like. Maybe I’m a wimp, maybe it will bite me in the behind in the long run, but lengthy sob sessions, long separations seem silly to me when a few minutes of explanation could suffice.
Yes, until your children are the age when you can actually reason with them, perhaps time outs are useful for settling everyone down. But from the minute they can really understand what you’re saying, coming back together and communicating honestly to make it work seems like such a better, if often challenging, option.