Time Outs Suck For Everyone, And Kids Learn Nothing From Them

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I’m a mom of four kids. Like many of you, I started my parenting journey off believing that time-outs were the way to go. I mean, they make sense, right? The child would sit in a designated spot for one minute per year of age. They would sit quietly and contemplate their transgression. When the timer went off, they would sincerely apologize for their offense and then sprint off to nicely play. We would pat ourselves on the back for a parenting job well done.

What really happens? The kid needs a minimum of one dozen reminders to stay in their spot and shush. Then you threaten to start the timer over (but of course you don’t, because time-outs are actually parental torture). The child is absolutely not thinking about why they are in a time-out in the first place and what they should do differently next time or how they can make amends. Instead, they’re just pissed—and you are, too. When you wear each other down, the kid runs off, still in a mood, and you sigh.

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You know the truth. Time-outs don’t work. So why are they still our go-to for discipline?

I get it. Sometimes you need space away from your child to calm down and collect yourself, so that you can respond appropriately. We all do, and it’s better to take space than fly off the handle.

You don’t want to spank your kid. You’ve listened to the science, and you’ve realized that just because you were spanked as a kid, it doesn’t mean spanking works and is an effective or appropriate punishment. Kudos to you. But just because you aren’t opting to spank, doesn’t mean you think there should be zero discipline. You’re trying not to raise a little spoiled, entitled, bully jerk. Therefore, you acknowledge that your kid needs you to bring something parental to the table. Okay, cool. We’re on the same page.

You could take things away, and you probably have. For example, your kindergartner gets mad and pushes his little sister. You feel like in order to be a decent parent, you’ve got to do something. Off the top of your head, you yell at your kid, “That was not nice! We don’t push! No TV for the day.” Of course, you live to regret this, because letting your kid watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is how you manage to snag a few moments of peace. Plus, you immediately realize that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Taking your kid’s TV privileges away on a Tuesday isn’t going to stop him from shoving his sister again next Thursday.

It’s been about five years since we decided to give up on time-outs and random privilege revoking. And guess what? Our kids are okay. In fact, they are empathetic, thoughtful, inclusive humans. Do they screw up sometimes? Absolutely yes. However, I’m no longer issuing punishments based on whatever way the wind is blowing that day. (Or whether or not I’ve had my coffee yet.)

We did loads of research since we became a family, choosing to move from what we think makes sense in the moment to connective parenting. Our motivation came after adopting our third child and learning about trauma-informed parenting methods. Though our children weren’t in foster care and didn’t spend any time in an orphanage, our kids did go from being with their biological parents to us. Arguably, this separation and change can equate some trauma for the child. We aren’t here to determine if our kids are or aren’t traumatized from being adopted; however, we realized that the connective parenting methods make sense, and when put into practice, actually work. This is true of children whether they were adopted or not.

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You may have heard of gentle parenting, attachment parenting, peaceful parenting, and connective parenting. They share many similarities. In essence, the goal is to focus more on the relationship between the parent and child, building trust, love, and empathy. Discipline, also known as guidance or correction, follows. The foundation must be one of relationship in order for the correction to be effective.

We were introduced to a mind-blowing idea: issuing a time-in instead of a time-out. A time-in is where the child and parent stay near each other until the child reaches a state of regulation — i.e., becomes stable. Once that happens, the parent and child can discuss what happened and problem-solve together. The child then makes amends in whatever way is appropriate, and then everyone moves on. Voila.

Yes, you read that correctly. No threats, ultimatums, lectures, grounding, reward charts, or arguments necessary. These are only distractions, and they don’t teach the child how to do better and be better next time a similar situation arises.

We shouldn’t be punishing kids for being human beings. Making mistakes is part of growing up. Learning to navigate tough situations is how kids build social and emotional skills like communication and compassion. We can either work to help guide our kids to a place of learning, or we can discipline them for having feelings and acting their age.

It makes sense doesn’t it? If we really want to teach our kids a lesson, that lesson should be one that empowers them to do the right thing next time. Plus, we’re showing them that we’re their safety net, that they can come to us when they’re struggling, and we will team up with them to work toward a solution. This process builds our children’s empathy and problem-solving skills.

Yes, issuing a time-in may take a little more time in the moment, but in the long run we won’t be micromanaging or throwing out random (and unrelated) punishments that are ineffective. When it comes to disciplining (ahem, guiding) our kids, less really is more.

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