Thinking back to our own childhoods, most of us can probably come up with at least a shortlist of ways our parents punished us that absolutely would not fly in 2021. And while some of these outdated discipline techniques are obvious (um, any type of corporal punishment), others that were once widely considered best practice have fallen out of favor — like giving a child a “time-out.” This once standard form of discipline used by parents, teachers, and babysitters alike is now controversial, as research has shown it to be ineffective and potentially harmful for a child. In fact, time-out for toddlers is no longer a common classroom punishment for acting out. If you’ve never really thought about the concept of putting a toddler in a time-out, here’s what to know about the controversial form of discipline, including alternative methods.
Time-Out for Toddlers: What Parents Should Know
Hopefully it’s been a while since you’ve been put in time-out, so here’s a quick refresher. Time-outs involve removing a toddler or other child from the rest of a group — whether that’s a classroom, a playgroup, or at home with siblings — and having them stay alone for a set period of time before allowing them to rejoin the group. There are several traditional time-out methods, including having the kid sit or stand in the corner (usually facing the corner, so they can’t see what is going on with the rest of the group or attempt to interact with them), or in a designated “time-out chair” (which yes, can be in a corner or another low-sensory environment).
The basic idea behind a time-out is to decrease a certain type of behavior considered to be deviant, destructive, or disruptive, including tantrums, yelling, aggression, leaving their classroom seat too frequently, and saying words or phrases considered inappropriate. But the discipline technique is a lot more complicated than that and is highly dependent on things like a child’s age, the setting, and their behavior. Despite this nuance, time-outs all typically follow the same pattern of removing a child from a group, even if that’s not the best option in that circumstance. And that’s where we go wrong.
Effectiveness of Time-Outs
Research has shown that when used as intended, time-outs can be effective and don’t cause harm to a child. The problem is, simply using time-outs as a generic one-size-fits-all punishment is not using the technique as intended. This is something Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson discussed in their viral 2014 article in Time magazine titled ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child, writing: “In most cases, the primary experience a time out offers a child is isolation. Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves — a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection.” In addition to the solitary aspect, they also argue that time-outs are ineffective, and may make kids even angrier than they were before their punishment.
But Siegel and Bryson later went on to clarify that they weren’t condemning all time-outs, and approve of the method if used correctly. So, what does that look like? Here are some guidelines from the Child Mind Institute:
- Keep time-outs as short as possible (some advise one minute per their age, while others say three minutes maximum).
- Make it clear to the child what they did to land in time-out.
- Use time-outs sparingly — not for every minor offense.
- But also use them consistently: If you are trying to work on a certain behavior, use time-outs every time that behavior occurs.
- Give kids the opportunity to repair their behavior when they return from time-out.
- Time-outs are best for kids between the ages of two and eight.
Alternatives to Time-Out
If you aren’t too keen on the idea of time-outs as your only discipline option, don’t worry — there are plenty of others out there. A few of those include:
- Stay with a child after they act out, instead of walking away and/or ignoring them at a time when they could use a connection.
- Have a “time-in” where you (as the adult) empathize with the struggling kiddo and make sure they feel seen and heard as they calm down.
- Let a child cry it out if they’re upset and experiencing big emotions.
- Offer them a do-over making the decision that resulted in their questionable behavior.
It can be difficult to know how to discipline your child, but making sure that it is rooted in empathy is a good start.