How to make "timeouts" less like bar fights.

Snapshots of life at home.
June 27 2008 7:24 AM

Family Feuds

How to make "timeouts" less like bar fights.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The "timeout" has replaced the swat on the behind as many parents' default punishment for a misbehaving child. It's worth noting, then, that this parenting tool is widely misunderstood and frequently misused.

Most parents already have a rough working notion of how to use timeouts. When a child does something wrong, you send him off to sit somewhere by himself and do nothing for a set amount of time, like a hockey referee putting a player in the penalty box. Two minutes on a bench for hitting at the playground, five minutes on a stool in the corner for talking back, and so on. Because the timeout seems so simple, most people feel comfortable using it intuitively, guided by assumptions that the punishment should fit the crime, that a timeout gives the child an opportunity to reflect and repent, and that it teaches the child who's in control.

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These assumptions lead many parents to use more and longer timeouts to match the frequency and severity of a child's offenses. If a child gets five minutes for, say, hitting a sibling, then a more serious offense, such as biting, should rate 15 or 30 minutes, right? Not necessarily. Using more and longer timeouts might seem proportional, and it might even conceivably teach a lesson about justice, but it won't help change the behavior that's causing you to give timeouts in the first place. And if you don't change the behavior, you're going to be enforcing a lot more timeouts.

Excessive timeouts do more harm than good, making a child irritable and more volatile in his reactions, and more inclined to escape and avoid the adults who punish him. Just as important, parents who punish excessively tend to escalate punishment, increasing the side effects and losing track of the original intent of giving a timeout, which is to improve a child's behavior. The opposite happens, in fact.

A reliable body of scientific research accruing over decades has given us a clear idea of how to use timeout most effectively. The technique's full name, "timeout from reinforcement," provides the key. Timeout has nothing to do with justice, repentance, or authority. Rather, it follows a simple logic: Attention feeds a behavior, and a timeout is nothing more than a brief break from attention in any form—demands, threats, explanations, rewards, hugs ... everything.

So, what does this tell us about the right way to use timeouts? They should be: