A Time for Time-Outs?
“They broke the door,” I announced to my spouse as we surveyed the long crack in the wood, the result of our 3-year-old twins’ most recent joint tantrum. Using a plastic toy, they had apparently leveraged the door off at the hinges within a matter of seconds, screws clean out of the wood. By this point we had already reached the highest limit of discipline at our disposal: A time-out. In their bedroom. Door closed. For three minutes (one for each year of age). Though some experts say that a time-out for very young kids should only last as long as it takes for them to cool off, we’ve stuck with the three-minute rule for reasons I’m sure I’ll remember once I, too, have cooled down. Before this final punishment, we had passed many other smaller punishments on the way, such as taking away beloved stickers from “The Good Behavior” chart and withdrawing a privilege they’d gotten used to having, like a TV show after naptime. Nothing seemed to stop the behavior from getting worse. The twins had continued to rage in separate rooms (doors open this time!) until the mood finally passed through their little bodies. At the end of this whole thing, we were left just as exhausted as they were, wondering what was left for parents like us to do when our kids considered our “worst punishment” not all that bad.
The reason spanking has never been an option for either of us boils down to this: We didn’t believe that a hit to their body, however controlled or padded we might make it, is a way to teach someone not to do bad things like, well, hit (or whatever other bad thing they do). If I’m not allowed to lay a hand on the guy who cut in front of me in the grocery line, I surely shouldn’t lay hands on a child. Studies on the subject have concluded that spanking has negative effects on children that carries into their adulthood. As sociologist Murray Straus put it in his book “The Primordial Violence”: “Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.” If you’d like to read more on the subject from the American Psychological Association (APA), click here.
Pediatricians and child psychologists agree: It’s healthy for a child to test limits and boundaries, and even something considered bad, like lying, is actually a developmental milestone. It’s no surprise that, with little kids, tantrums eventually occur. But, let’s be honest, it’s impossible to be so clinical about it when it’s your kid who’s driving you nuts. You raise your voice. You say things in a way you wish you hadn’t. We’ve all been there. And it can be tempting to use spanking. But if you don’t believe in going there, what do you do? The subject of discipline is widely written about, with philosophies and approaches to suit every person’s personal feelings on the issue. Here’s what they seem to boil down to: If time-outs aren’t working, then it’s not about doing something “worse,” but about trying something different.
Some experts suggest that using certain "tricks" lessen the chance for a tantrum or misbehavior in the first place, by identifying the common tantrum-triggers and developing a fun new approach to them. For example, it might mean finding a way to make clean-up time a fun game.
They also suggest diverting the kid’s anger into an activity that dispels it. I remember our babysitter used to do a version of this with the twins when they were around 2 years old. Just as a tantrum or a spiral of bad behavior was getting underway, he’d announce, “Hey, let’s hold hands and jump up and down!” Where I have a tendency to get caught up in the spiral along with them, he would just deflect it right off the map. The kids would focus on jumping and the crisis was averted. I suspect it might work best with toddlers since my more recent attempts to do so with the twins don’t work. However, it now works like a charm on the 20-month-old!
Taking this approach a step further, and in a way that makes it more useful for kids beyond age 2, many experts suggest that the parent interrupt the build-up of misbehavior in a child by finding something positive to focus on — about him, his intensity and his intentions at the time. “I love how great you are at building a tower, but we need to use blocks and not my grandmother’s china set.” That sort of thing.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about a focus on rewarding good behavior more than punishing the bad. In the days since that broken door, I’ve tried something on the twins that has had some success. When I see one of them building up anger and starting to act out, I was able to get them to calmer place by giving them my full attention and using a low soothing voice, talking them through what had happened to make them angry. And if there was a way, at the end, to spin it into something positive, then I tacked that on, too. It hasn’t worked every time, but I’ve noticed, when it comes to parenting, nothing works every time. Applying this approach before reaching the time-out zone has made things better than they’ve been in a while. It’s not about finding what the worst thing you can do to discipline a kid, it’s about finding the tricks that train them to better behavior, instead.
There’s a terrific program called Parents Raising Safe Kids, available through the APA, that’s worth looking into if you’ve reached the end of your rope.
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