Here’s the scene: I’m sitting in an airport with two grandfatherly gentlemen, one of whom had never had children, I might add, and polite chit chat leads to the inevitable place where I divulge that my day job is all about behavior modification. We talked a bit, not too deeply and seemingly safely, but there must have been a commercial break on the Fox News broadcast or something to trigger the need for more banter. Lulls do weird things to people.

Before I could really ready myself, the discussion turned, as it does, to the lack of discipline for ‘kids these days’ and then took a predictable quick leap to ‘it’s because everybody’s using time out and time out doesn’t work’.

Imagine these guys saying the words ‘time out’ in the same tone that they might say, ‘Bernie Sanders’ and you’ll sense the type of throw down we were headed towards.

I replied, as I usually do, with some level of sass designed to diffuse with humor, while gauging the level of seriousness I needed to apply to the conversation as a parenting expert. Sassiness is a great litmus test for conversation, in case you’re wondering.

“Time out is all we really have to use these days,” I suggest, “since beating children is frowned upon.”

And then I wait to see which way we are going to dance.

“Well, maybe that’s the problem,” one guy says, which is a very disappointingly predictable retort, by the way. He followed this up with the challenge restated: “Time out doesn’t work!”

Now I knew which way to respond. I began to explain that time out is often very seriously misused because the concept of time out is not fully understood.

When time out is misused, it can backfire, which we see all the time. I concluded my airport TED Talk on Time Out with the words “There is no time out without time IN.”

Unfortunately, by this time the news broadcast was back or an announcement came over the loudspeaker or some other interruption and I had lost them.

I forgot all about this little interchange until I saw this meme in my Facebook feed depicting this very smart little preschooler who found a way to get out of cleanup by getting himself in time out.

Cool kid, that one. I know several like him. He paid attention to what was happening in his environment and used it to his advantage. I like that in a three-year-old.

He also illustrates exactly how we fail to use and understand time out appropriately.

As a behavior modification tool, time out is very effective, minimally disruptive, and easily implemented. All the data shows that time out just works to decrease behavior that is undesirable. It eliminates the power struggle. So, why does time out get such a bad rap? Here’s why time out doesn’t work:

In essence, time out is removal from something that is desirable to something that is less desirable.

This is what is meant by the idea that there is no time out without time in. If the thing that you are losing is not valuable, it does not matter if you are removed from it. (Exhibit A: our three-year-old friend who was removed from clean up duty at daycare.)

This will do nothing to change his behavior. In fact, it might even make him act worse. This little smarty recognizes that clean-up is a big fat drag. His #hardpass maneuver is to just chuck a toy across the room and get himself marched to the corner where he gets to bypass the whole plebian ordeal. Time out is not at all a bad place to be. It’s better than cleaning up, so it’s more desirable and the student has become the master.

If you’ve ever given yourself a ‘mommy time out’, you know what I’m talking about. Not knocking it, by the way (you should grant yourself one early and often), but we all know (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) there’s nothing punishing about taking a glass of wine to the bathroom with a magazine if the other option is trying to get a toddler to finish his dinner. The time out is the better deal—it’s more desirable. Seriously, what do I have to do to get more of this kind of time out, please?

So, to make time out effective and to use it to decrease behaviors that aren’t desirable, there are two very basic principles:

Time out is not a place.

It is the removal of something great to something less great. The key here is to make sure that the thing you are removing is really considered great by the child and that what you are removing them to is less great. There has to be contrast. You are not going to make me sad at all if you tell me that I can’t do the dishes and I have to sit in the living room and watch Grey’s Anatomy instead. Time out doesn’t work like that.

Time out cannot be used when a child is trying to escape from doing something.

Again, just look at our three-year-old cleanup dodger. Time out allows for the child to tap out of doing something, at least for a time. Time out will always backfire if you use it to allow your child to escape from following through with a request. If your sweet little one can get out of putting on her shoes by throwing a fit and getting a time out, you can assure yourself a repeat performance.

With these basic concepts in mind, here is a quick start guide to using time out effectively for good behavior:

Time out SHOULD:

  1. Remove something valued from the child for a time. You can remove the child from the room or remove the toy from the child, but make sure the thing you are taking away actually matters or it just won’t be effective.
  2. Be delivered without tons of attention. In fact, minimal attention is preferred. Your attention is likely very valuable to your child. Remember there has to be contrast. If you remove a toy because your child throws a tantrum and then they get to have a long conversation with lots of eye contact with mom, they are probably getting something more valuable than the toy in the first place. Keep attention to a minimum during time out. Use the power of your attention at other times.
  3. Continue until the child is behaving appropriately. If you are using a timer, it should not start until your child is sitting calmly and time out should definitely not end if your child is not calm.

Time out SHOULD NOT:

  1. Be used when a child has been asked to do something. Do not allow time out to be an escape from following instructions. If a time out is needed because behavior is getting out of control, just be sure to go back to the task that needs to be completed.
  2. Allow your child to have access to something that is very valuable or desired during time out. The biggest mistake here is sending a child to their room. Their room is full of fun stuff. Don’t sabotage yourself that way. If you are going to use time out, make it effective by ensuring that the time out has contrast.
  3. Be your first or only discipline choice. Time out is very effective, but it does not have the power to teach a child coping skills or help them to self-regulate before losing their cool, or show them how to problem solve when they are frustrated. Because time out doesn’t work, other strategies should be used to help build these skills. Time out can be used in the interim to discourage an increase in undesirable behavior as your child has time to be guided to more maturity in their skills.


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Why time out doesn't work...and how to make it work for you!

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