Isolating children when they don’t meet our expectations of behavior is one method of implementing time-out. Using time-out may be one of the most popular discipline methods used by parents today. Carl Larsson, the Swedish artist, did a painting in 1897 of an older boy sitting in time-out. The time-out technique has been around for a long time, sometimes used in a positive way, but much too often used in a punitive way.
How can we know if our time-outs are punitive or positive?
If we send a child to sit in the corner or tell them to “go to your room” and our intention is to motivate the child to act differently using shame or guilt, we are using time-out as punishment. When we try to use guilt and shame to make our children change we fall for the faulty assumption that making our child feel bad about their behavior will teach them how to act differently. More often than not our punitive agenda has our children sitting and thinking that they are “bad”, or thinking of ways of how not to get caught next time, or thinking of ways to get even.
Positive time-out can help our children learn to calm their emotions and learn to choose how they will behave. Using time-out as a learning tool gives our children time to cool-off from a frazzling situation and time to regroup to try again. For the child under six years old, many emotionally charged moments involve being too tired, too hungry or too over-whelmed with a new situation. We need to deal with those issues with other methods from our parenting toolbox before positive time-out.
What does a space for a positive time-out look like?
First, children should be involved in creating a spot in your home that will help them regain their composure. This place may be a corner or chair in their bedrooms or your family room with pillows, music, books, stuffed animals, or favorite toys. Let them give their space a name. A three-year-old student of mine called his rocker his “rock it away chair”.
Once you’ve worked with your child to create a safe and calming space, let them know that when you see them needing some time to calm down or “rock it away” you’ll say something like, “Would it help you if you could go to your special place?” If your child says, ‘No,” you can offer to go with them. If that offer is refused, you can always go to your own space to calm down! You’ll be modeling how to remove yourself from a situation in order to regroup.
The purpose of positive time-out is to help a child learn to calm his or her emotional brain and regroup. It is not about punishing our children for their behavior, but a tool to help them learn to control their emotions and redirect their behavior, independently. Using positive time-out should not be the only parenting tool in your toolbox, or the one you pull out first when situations get a bit tense. Also, positive time-out is more appropriate for children over three years of age, depending on developmental needs.
If you choose to use time-out, always ask yourself, “Am I doing this to punish or instruct?”
With that answer you’ll know if it is an appropriate parenting tool. We all—children and adults–do better when we feel positive about the direction we are headed. Guilt and shame are not the motivators we want to use.