So there I was last week, perusing a preschool parent handbook, when I stumbled across a curious anti-timeout policy. “Time-out is not an effective form of discipline,” the packet explained. “This focuses on the negative and alienates the child.”
I felt an immediate pang of guilt. I’ve given my almost-2-year-old a handful of timeouts—defined as a brief time away from rewarding stimuli like toys, parents, and friends—for hitting the dog, throwing rocks, and standing on chairs. A few Google searches later, I learned that proponents of attachment parenting advise against timeouts because the interventions give kids “the feeling of being rejected by their parents.” This backlash isn’t even that new—Child magazine published (and Parents magazine republished) an article in 2003 called “Why Time-Out Is Out.”
Have my attempts to raise a good little boy scarred him for life? Or are these anti-punishment policies way overprotective and perhaps even harmful?
Some psychologists do believe that if you practice good “positive discipline” techniques, by stating facts rather than demands, using distraction to steer kids away from danger, and working out solutions as a family, you shouldn’t need timeouts, or at least not very often. And timeouts can be ineffective, psychologically damaging, and make behavioral problems worse. But that’s not because they are inherently dangerous; it’s because so many parents and teachers misunderstand how they should be done. Indeed, plenty of research suggests that timeouts are safe and useful when parents employ them properly and in the right situations. For instance, evidence-based parenting programs, including the internationally implemented Triple-P Positive Parenting Program, recommend timeouts, and such programs have found that the interventions successfully reduce misbehaviors as well as the risk that children will suffer from psychological issues like anxiety and depression. And in its guidance statement on effective discipline, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that “ignoring, removing, or withholding parent attention to decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors” is “especially important in promoting positive child behavior.”
Timeouts may sound cruel, but they make sense when you consider their history and context. The term timeout is actually an abbreviation for timeout from positive reinforcement. Timeouts are based on the premise that kids should be raised in environments that are rich with “time-ins:” loving, positive interactions like “reading a story, laughing with them, fixing popcorn with them, or playing a game with them,” says Edward Christophersen, a psychologist and pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and the author of Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime. When children in nurturing environments do something dangerous or defiant, the idea is to briefly take away positive reinforcement so that they learn to associate the good things—the time-ins—with good, safe behavior.
Timeouts don’t work very well, then, if you haven’t created a richly positive environment for your child. In other words, “it's the effort parents put into time-in that determines whether or not timeout works,” Christophersen says, so when parents and teachers categorically state that timeouts don’t work with their kids, it can be a warning sign of more serious problems in the home or school environment. If you rarely praise, hug, or interact positively with little Sammy, then acting up may be the only way he can get your attention, and for a kid, negative attention (such as when parents get mad) is better than no attention.
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