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Why We Don't Do Timeouts, and Maybe You Shouldn't Either

Timeouts for kidsI can recognize the signs like a car crash in slow motion — the whiny screeching, the spastic body heaves, the reckless and overly dramatic outbursts. We’re on a collision course to tantrum, and I’m helplessly standing there like a wide-eyed bystander — unable to stop the inevitable. 

And I don’t know about you (except that I probably do, in this instance), but my own childhood tantrums/outbursts/sibling brawls almost always led to the timeout chair. One of the most common and mildest forms of punishment that crosses generational and (I’m assuming?) cultural boundaries.

Except we don’t do timeouts in our house. Never have.

And it looks like I’m not the only one. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, experts claim that timeouts are fairly useless when it comes to disciplining — citing a range of reasons, from the lack of real communication (“It’s far better to talk to your child about her behavior in the moment than to banish her and [make] her feel guilty,”) to the unimpressive results. According to Meghan Leary, a mother of three and parenting coach, kids are developmentally unable to process the lesson and a lot of little kids are unwilling to keep their tushes seated.

“Whatever infraction garnered the punishment is forgotten and now you’re in a full physical struggle to learn a lesson that they’re not cognitively able to learn,” Leary told The Washington Post.

And I get that. I’m not sure I had any consciousness-shifting “aha” moments sitting in my miniature chair, starring at a bare wall through rage-glazed eyes. In fact, I’m pretty positive that being banished to a solitary area did nothing but let my unacknowledged (and, in my mind, perfectly justified) anger seethe.

Let’s be real, though: Timeouts aren’t about teaching lessons, they’re about sending everyone to their own corners (most importantly my corner) before we switch into Crazy Mom mode. The mode that operates on pure emotion, sustained by chaos.

Mommy needs a timeout to breathe, and if that means he spends some time in his room sobbing into a pillow — trust me, he’s better off. We all are.

But I don’t do timeouts, remember? I largely agree that the means is counterproductive to the end, and if we can find a way to teach some coping methods while taming our inner rage machine? Golden.

And so instead of traditional timeouts, we have “time aways.”

timeout4

A small distinction, you might argue, but we approach it as an opportunity instead of a punishment. An opportunity for him to breathe and compose himself — to calm down. We approach it as something he needs, rather than something we arbitrarily want. And I don’t always leave him on his own, either. Often I’ll sit with him and breathe while we both calm down away from whatever situation prompted the meltdown — and maybe my kid is different than yours (who can tell?) but it’s pretty darn effective at braking the situation before a full-on collision.

Then when the front is calm, we can deal with whatever discipline/communication needs to happen.

I didn’t come up with this idea, of course, because I’m just playing the game with everyone else. But my sister — a mom and teacher with an Early Childhood background — first suggested the “time away” method, and it’s something they do in Noah’s preschool. If a kid is acting a fool, they’ll gently insist that he or she sit in their respective cubby area to cool down. No punishment or finger wagging involved. And you wouldn’t believe how many times the kids sense that out-of-control emotion and voluntarily remove themselves from the group, straight to their cubby.

“I just need some time,” the kid will announce.

And isn’t that the entire point of this thing? To teach kids how to acknowledge their emotions and cope? Not to just follow rules and obey orders?

So maybe the experts are right — maybe the “sit there and think about what you’ve done” banishment is antiquated and ineffective, but they’re missing the meat of the issue. Sometimes we all need a few minutes to breathe and regroup.

Sometimes we all need a little time away.

Photos: Picnik Photography/Early Mama

Were you/are you a young mom? Join the community at EarlyMama.com for support, resources, and inspiration.

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