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Expert: Instead of Timeouts, Just Say 'Yes'

By Madeline Holler |

alfie-kohn-no-timeouts-unconditional-parentingAlfie Kohn thinks you shouldn’t punish your kids. He also thinks you shouldn’t reward them. By doing so, you’re teaching them that you love them only when they behave and demonstrate new skills. So, no timeouts and, also, no gold stars.

But kids, right? They can’t be trusted to raise themselves. So why is this Kohn guy trying to get parents to be so permissive, to let them run around wild and turn into narcississtic, rule-ignoring embarrassments who won’t show up to work on time … if at all?

Kohn, responding to the criticism of his New York Times piece in which he said kids interpret timeouts as conditional love, explains in the Times blog Motherlode what parents can do to teach their kids the ways of the world without using timeouts or praise.

But first, he gives a short explanation of how timeouts (or constant praise like “good job!”) can insinuate conditional love:

Somehow we have to communicate that we love them even when we’re not thrilled with what they’re doing. However, the recommendation to make that distinction is sometimes tossed around a little too casually. The fact is that it’s often hard even for an adult, much less a child, to make sense of it. “We accept you, but not how you act” is particularly unpersuasive if very few of the child’s actions find favor with us. What is this elusive “me” you claim to love, the child may wonder, when all I hear from you is disapproval? As Thomas Gordon pointed out, “Parents who find unacceptable a great many things that their children do or say will inevitably foster in these children a deep feeling that they are unacceptable as persons.” That doesn’t change just because the parents remember to say soothingly, “We love you, honey, we just hate almost everything you do.”

Now, the mind-shift for many parents: instead of “doing-to” parenting, switching to working with kids to solve problems. (Be sure to read his short explanation if you automatically think “working with” means “total permissiveness.”)

He outlines 10 points, though he hardly calls it a script to work from. One basic requirement is trying to see a situation from the child’s perspective. Also, try not to be such a perfect parent for your kid — let them see you’re human. Put the relationship first.

Number 6 is particularly important, I think, and something that a society as a whole could work on:

6. “Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.”
Nel Noddings reminds us that kids will live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it’s better to assume the best when we don’t know for sure why they did what they did.

Number 7, for me, is the hardest — but totally worth trying (and trying again, and again and again):

7. Try to say yes.
Don’t function on autoparent and unnecessarily deny children the chance to do unusual things. People don’t get better at coping with frustration as a result of having been deliberately frustrated when they’re young.

There were alot of comments over at this post, with parents very committed to timeouts and other discipline techniques that Kohn considers “conditional love” messages to kids. But now that he’s given more specifics, what do you think? Still a recipe for raising a generation of anarchists? Or does it make more sense — and look similar to what you’re already doing?

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Photo: New York Times

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About Madeline Holler

madeline-holler

Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Expert: Instead of Timeouts, Just Say 'Yes'

  1. patricia says:

    I have to say that I still don’t understand this. I think the points he outlined are great, but I don’t know where that leaves me when my 3 year old flatly refuses when I ask her to wash her hands after she goes potty. I say please, I (mostly) don’t yell at her, I try to explain why we do it, but at some point, she just has to do it. That’s not negotiable in my house (should it have to be?), and that’s a relatively trivial example; there are other things that aren’t negotiable because they are a health issue, or a safety issue, or a major socialization issue. And sometimes she refuses despite all my explanations, patience, reconsidering from her point of view, etc., and neither of these articles gave me any framework for dealing with that.

    GP, I know you’ve read his book. Maybe you can shed some light on how Kohn’s ideas play out in specific, concrete, “I need you to do this because if you don’t you will get sick or hurt or grow up to be socially maladjusted” situations? Because I really like the principles he writes about in the column linked above, but I still don’t have a clue how one implements them to eliminate timeouts (with younger kids like mine, anyway) but still manages to impart the necessary life habits and skills, etc. Is his book any more concrete?

  2. Yes, GP did such a great job filling in on the last post. Thanks, GP, I’d love to know what you think of the hand-washing problem, too!
    If I were to hazard a guess, I would say 5 or 9 would be the place to look. 5 — asking what makes him not want to wash his hands, is he scared? Too busy? etc., etc. and 9 — give him more say, for example, you can either wash your hands at the sink or use hand sanitizer. Just a guess … I’m manic about hand-washing so I get what you’re saying. Great comment!

  3. GP says:

    Is this a trap to force me to reveal the lack of hygiene practiced in our house? ha ha…Sometimes my 2 year old doesn’t want to wash her hands after going potty and GASP…I don’t make her. If we are out and use a PUBLIC bathroom, then yes, we do. If its poop, then, yes, we do…but if she doesn’t feel like washing her hands after peeing at home sometimes, then what’s the big deal? Most of the time, she’ll wash her hands. I bet if you don’t make such a big deal out of it, it would become less of a thing. You must know that sometimes kids say no just to assert their independence, and I think we have to be a little more flexible about what REALLY matters.

    I am not a tight Kohn devotee. I have (sadly) wacked my kid in the ass and yelled. It makes me sad because I have done this out of anger rather than reasoned teaching or discipline. But, maybe that’s why she is so good overall, because she’s felt the wrath (?) and I can do Kohn’s stuff most of the other times (?) I almost believe that two year olds don’t really do BAD things, they just do things that are inconvenient, unsafe or inappropriate.

    Anyone who is going to follow this guy’s shtick like some kind of formula is wack. At the same time, as a conceptual underpinning, it’s kind of an eye-opener. You kind of have to put yourself in the kid’s shoes. Would you want someone harping on you constantly about things that don’t matter to you? I guess you have to make them matter to them, or try to work their perspective into your dealings. Some things just require ACTION not punishment. Like I always hear about people thinking they need to punish their kids for running into the street because of safety. Well, why are you setting up the environment that the kid CAN run in the street? I am by no means helicopter, but, you set up the environment to minimize the need for “punishment” to the extent that’s age-appropriate, then from time to time you give them opportunities to stretch and prove themselves. If they can’t handle it, you pull back on the reigns–not a punishment, but, no, they are not ready to go for a walk without holding your hand or not riding in the stroller.

    When my kids has a rare tantrum now, instead of yelling and getting mad. I hold her really tight and talk to her. I tell her she has to be quiet and listen to me so I can tell her something important. Then I give her the lesson Harvey Karp style: I empathize, I keep it simple…then I distract. It usually works. I am luck, my girl is really good and I only have one. I also think that my extended nursing and co-sleeping as a small baby have complemented our relationship. She seems to want to please.

    I must end my babbling now, but would respond to other *specific* queries…

  4. GP says:

    I kinda think I need to re-read his book before I can give any really worthwhile comments…

  5. I don’t know, GP, I kinda think the guy should hire you as a spokesmodel! Thanks for the details. I’ve read his book, read his articles (and Tweets!) and have also seen him talk and I think you’re right on. It’s allllll about child’s perspective, allll about listening and understanding the child’s perspective and giving the kid an explanation they can understand rather than the “because I said so” line.

  6. GP says:

    Well, I just got my copy out and starting thumbing through, and it’s really kind of…complicated, yet at the same time simple. It’s less about *rules* than about integrating a way of thinking. I have a friend who is much more into Kohn than me who says she keeps a copy of the book out all the time and refers to it (she’s got a 2 year old, too).

  7. bettywu says:

    I agree that 7 is a really good one and one I would like to work harder at. #6 is very good in theory, but I’ve seen proponents use it in the real world and it can be troubling. This is very tricky one to get right and sorry to dwell on the negative, but I see it gotten wrong (in my opinion) much more often than not. Instead of being an opportunity to let your child talk about what happened and give their perspective, I most often see parents preemptively making excuses for their kids. Johnny hauls off and punches Jimmy. Johnny’s mom comes over and says, “oh, Johnny you were just defending yourself from Jimmy, weren’t you” or “Johnny, you were there first, weren’t you.”

    Kids aren’t stupid, and the kids that I see who get a lot of this are experts at not taking any responsibility for their actions and little genius’ at throwing the blame to someone else. I guess that can be a valuable skill in the corporate world, though.

    I’m not saying the point he makes here is not a valid one. It is easy to rush to judge and it’s easy to assume that what we saw was the whole story. Slowing down is a good idea and teaching kids to verbalize what happened is a valuable opportunity that shouldn’t be missed when possible. I’m just saying that when I see it in action it’s a lot more about avoiding responsibility and consequences for actions.

  8. LogicalMama says:

    I think this is a more feasible philosophy for younger kids (I notice you are all referring to 2 and 3 yr. olds), but what about older kids that are attempting to assert more independence and when you know their misbehavior is a detriment to their overall well-being, health, etc. I am no where near a control freak, but when my 7 yr. old consistently says “no” to brushing his teeth, it gets a bit frustrating… and yes, I have let him slide for the sake of allowing him control when I know that one time won’t kill him. But if he had his druthers, he’d NEVER brush his teeth!

  9. LogicalMama,
    I know a woman who I think is a Kohn-head (I just made that up!), and she leaves it up to her kids (between 5 and 9) whether they’ll brush their teeth. I don’t know if that’s a “listen and explain” situation or what. It would be interesting to hear Kohn tackle that.
    For what it’s worth, a wise person who is totally into this way of interacting with children said it’s OK for it not to feel natural and for it to feel like a lot of work, especially when it’s new and that if you’re hitting 30 percent you’re doing good!

  10. shesameanie says:

    So what happens to these kids when they are inevitably in situations where they HAVE to do things they don’t want to? How are they going to function in the world?

  11. SSmm says:

    “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments– there are consequences.” Ingersoll

    I think that quote perfectly applies in this case.

  12. jenny tries too hard says:

    Madeline, I wonder if your friend also lets her kids decide whether or not they’ll be taken to the dentist to have their cavities fixed.

  13. GP says:

    I’d show the 7 year old a picture of Shane McGowan.

  14. GP says:

    @shesameanie

    I think its important that we don’t extrapolate behavior in a very young child (or even 7 year olds) to how they’re going to be later (any kind of developmental issues aside).

    I believe that most kids, if treated with love and respect, will grow to WANT to function in the world. Most people do, and sometimes when people go against the grain or question the status quo, it turns out to be a great, revolutionary thing. I think Kohn’s way plants the seeds of that questioning the status quo and not just going along, but, fosters a genuine sense of wanting to be a good citizen of humanity.

    Kids tend to want to fit in and do what the grown ups do, and that desire will help them behave in society. During times of typical rebellion (toddlers/teens) its NORMAL, HEALTHY and SMART for them to push the envelope. As parents, it’s our challenge to create an environment where they can push, while keeping them safe. We have to be ninjas.

  15. patricia says:

    I wasn’t able to get back to this discussion yesterday but I’m glad to see it’s still going. GP, you give me so much to think about! I still have tons of questions…I think I’m going to have to get the book and read it myself. I think that maybe I try to parent this way with my kids without having put a name to the philosophy. We talk about why we do stuff; I very rarely fall back on “because I say so,” because it drove me bananas as a kid. I respect my daughter as a person, even if an immature person. I guess to me (without having read the book), the philosophy is wonderful and something to incorporate into my thinking as I parent. It still seems like it could be taken to an extreme and then you have poorly socialized children. Sometimes a child needs to know that what they have done is wrong, like when my daughter bit her baby sister. I don’t know if she was trying to hurt her, but even without that intention, it’s still wrong and she needs to understand that. I feel like timeout is warranted in that case, but we also talked about why we don’t bite, how it hurts the baby, and how my 3 year old doesn’t like being hurt and how she therefore doesn’t want to hurt the baby, right? In that case, I feel like the timeout reinforced all that stuff, and we’ve never had that issue again. (We also talked about how she was feeling about the baby, which helped us make some changes in our interactions with the two of them that I think were helpful too.) I think maybe that timeouts work in connection with the things that are kind of abstract for kids to grasp- we share because it’s a way of respecting other people, even when we want whatever it is all to ourselves. That’s pretty tough for a 3 year old, whose brain is wired for only her own gratification, to grasp. I talk to her about these things, I don’t just rule by fiat, but sometimes sharing has to be enforced.

    I think maybe where Kohn finds resistance (again, without having read the book) is in his extreme pronunciations that kids won’t feel loved if they are put in timeouts. That seems perhaps a little over the top to me. I don’t remember much about how my parents disciplined me (a combination of yelling and spanking, I think), but I never thought they didn’t love me. I do think that trying to be respectful of our kids in our parenting can’t be a bad thing.

    I don’t know if any of this made any sense, but I thank you all for a great set of discussions. I wonder when I can find time to read the book.

  16. patricia says:

    Also, GP, you are right that kids push, and I like your approach for giving kids ways to push safely. Unfortunately, sometimes my daughter wants to push at a time when it is unsafe- like she won’t hold my hand while crossing the street, for example. And she’s just doing it to push. She and I have developed the rule that she can hold my hand in a parking lot or crossing the street, or I can carry her. Usually she chooses to walk, and so that works for us, but a few times before we worked that out, she and I were collapsed in a heap in the crosswalk, me trying to drag dead weight toddler before the light changed. I guess I can think of a million ways the whole thing breaks down, which is why I think it works as a philosophy but maybe not as a step by step guide (and maybe why I was having trouble bringing it to a concrete level?).

    Okay, I’ll shut up and get to work now. Thanks for food for thought, guys!

  17. GP says:

    A practical matter: I think it helps to by physically strong and to not have a second kid or younger baby to deal with (which is my case, and I know not the case for everyone). Sometimes you just have to lift the dead weight out of harm’s way (or public embarrassment) and get outta there to a place where you both can cool down. I’ve had to do this a few times. I just don’t do time outs where I make her sit someplace on her own because they don’t make sense to me. She probably wouldn’t stay in one place and then the battle would be about her staying there and I don’t think she’d get why. I don’t want to close her up in a room with the door closed or anything either. That’s why we just do “time out” where I hold her in a tight bear hug and we talk (again, you have to be strong cause they can be strong little buggers themselves). Most of the time after our “talk” she wants to set things right an initiates a hug and kiss.

  18. GP says:

    I guess my point of that last post is that people have to tailor these philosophies and ideals to what works for them as individuals…

  19. [...] Expert: Instead of Timeouts, Just Say ‘Yes’ [...]

  20. cheri says:

    So, havent read the book, but something that seems so intuitive to me, but is never said is that children are people. Whole, entire people, from the time they are born. We, as parents, are tasked with teaching them what they need to know to be happy and healthy in the world….but for the most part, they will learn to do much of this on their own. So, as little people, they need to be respected. We need to appreciate that they feel, have preferences, want things that may be different from what we want for them, and are often inconvenient. So many parents have their lives set up so that they cannot allow their children freedom of movement and self-determination….and so battle of wills are a constant struggle. I have found that if I try to over schedule my day, even planning “fun” things for my toddler for her own good, we end up butting heads and both end up frustrated. If I let her schedule determine mine, we both end up happier, and discipline is mostly not necessary. I see my husband, for whom this philosophy is not quite as intuitive try to enforce his will on her, and they battle much more over small things.

    I know that as she starts school, and her life becomes by necessity more scheduled, these battles will be come unavoidable…but she is a remarkably considerate and compliant little girl, and building this foundation of respect will minimize the battle of wills in the future.

    This doesnt mean that she gets what she wants and is a spoiled child now, it is just that I try to keep in mind that she has a right to prefer oranges to grapes today, or pink yogurt to green….even if it is not what I had in mind. I try not to say NO, and I dont set rules that dont make any sense. Oh, and I dont worry about her washing her hands after a pee. There is no reason to wash your hands after peeing really……especially in your own bathroom. I mean, public bathrooms are another story, but the dirty part is the being in the bathroom at all, not the pee part.

  21. patricia says:

    Cheri, I agree with your approach but way disagree on the handwashing! Maybe your daughter is more tidy about wiping than mine, and maybe this is a skill that just comes with time, but my daughter gets pee, poop, sometimes toilet water, all over her hands because of her lack of wiping skills. Yet another reason why handwashing is mandatory in my house.

  22. Cati says:

    Well, I must already be a bad mother because I’ve honestly never even heard of this guy! I don’t read parenting books. I probably should, but I just don’t have time. I will say, though, that I LOVE his 10 guidelines. I think a lot of people may be taking what he has said as very black and white, but I agree with him. I’ll have to read his books. I don’t think he’s telling people to let their children run free and wild and not teach them right from wrong. I think what he’s telling people is that giving kids a time out isn’t providing any real answer to the child as to why what they did was wrong. They just learn that it’s wrong. Same goes for the praise. So, to look at it that way, punishing/praising is teaching our kids to do as they’re told. So, that’s what they do. If they encounter a situation they were never ‘told’ about when they were little, they’re on their own. But if you get down to your child’s level and try to understand WHY they did what they did and try to help them undertand WHY what they did was not OK or brilliant, then they will be able to use that knowledge to reason a response or action when they encounter similar situations. I have always felt that way (I have a 2-year-old daughter) and I’m glad that I’m not crazy and alone in my thinking. Now if I can just get her father to see it that way…:)

  23. [...] now that we aren’t allowed to use time outs (thanks Alfie), it turns out we’re all mad as hell and just can’t take it anymore. But instead of [...]

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