Why I Think Time-Out is Just as Damaging as Spanking

Even those of us who are against smacking will routinely use other discipline techniques to control and mould our children’s behaviour from a very early age. Below is a list of non-physical discipline measures in common use today that come highly recommended by ‘experts’, and a description of what is really going on psychologically for the child.


Time-out – Removing a child from a situation for inappropriate behaviour for a set number of minutes. Often an apology is required before the time-out can end.


When our children behave ‘badly’ they are either reaching out in some way, they simply haven’t learnt yet that certain behaviour isn’t ok, or they need reminding. However, rather than listening to them and looking behind (or beyond) the behaviour, this method excludes our child, shaming and ignoring them, and leading them to the conclusion that no-one wants to be with them in a moment when they really need loving support. Our children need to know that in their worst moments we are there for them.


“For the frustrated and uncomfortable child, time-out offers enforced silence and the feeling of being rejected by one’s parents. A youngster who misbehaves and then is given time-out feels hurt. This hurt, combined with the frustration that caused the youngster to misbehave, gives birth to anger. And discipline practices like time-out, which create hurt and anger, can harm a child.” Peter Haiman, Ph.D, (The Case Against Time-Out, Mothering Magazine, 1998).


Grounding – Prohibiting a child from attending a particular social event or from engaging in particular activities. This technique may also incorporate particular tasks or chores which must be carried out instead and are designed to teach children appropriate behaviour.


Again, it doesn’t look behind the behaviour or address it in any way. All this will encourage is sneakiness and lying to ensure they don’t get caught and there is no lesson learnt. We won’t know our authentic child, just the parts they want us to see.


Taking Away Privileges – Prohibiting a child from taking advantage of certain privileges (usually those that they have earlier abused with inappropriate behaviour). Privileges are usually restored when a child can prove, through his/her behaviour, that (s)he understands and appreciates them.


Same deal as grounding; our child doesn’t learn to appreciate the effect of the ‘bad’ behaviour this way. They aren’t intrinsically motivated to behave appropriately, they are doing it to ensure they don’t get punished. Therefore, even if their behaviour improves in our company will it when we aren’t together? What would be their motivation for behaving well?


Ignoring Bad Behaviour, Rewarding Good Behaviour – This is where any bad behaviour is ignored and good behaviour receives praise and rewards. The theory being that children thrive on attention of any sort, even negative attention, so they may be behaving badly to get a reaction.


So despite our child’s desperate attempts to communicate with us with the tools they have, rather than respond to their emotions, we ignore them. When our child finally gives up trying to reach out, we reward them. This only teaches our children that it’s best to bury their emotions in front of us, because we don’t want to listen.


Punishments –This is where the child is made to do a chore or something else they dislike as punishment for the bad behaviour.


If you view your child as someone who is still learning and figuring out the world, as someone who requires regular guidance and feedback and who deserves respect, then punishment for making a mistake makes no sense at all.  They also will only learn to act a certain way for fear of getting caught, rather than being intrinsically motivated to do so, and often will behave very differently when adults are not present.


Overall, all these methods – both physical and non-physical – encourage us to exert control over our child’s will. This only leads them to behave in certain ways for fear of our reaction, rather than from a choice they made themselves because it made sense.  Fear creates a disconnection between us and our child as they begin to hide their true selves from us.   But if we don’t use punishment  or discipline then what can we do? Are we left powerless?  The good news is that we do have parental tools at our disposable, we just have to change what’s in our toolbox.  Here are some healthy alternatives to punishment that will help move us closer towards a loving, respectful connection with our child and develop their sense of self.



Chaley-Ann Scott

About Chaley-Ann Scott

Chaley-Ann Scott is a parenting author, sociologist, counsellor, and mother-of-four. She writes widely on parenting and education for various publications, and is the author of The Shepherdess; A Guide to Mothering without Control.


14 thoughts on “Why I Think Time-Out is Just as Damaging as Spanking”

  1. I think what also needs to be mentioned about the last one “Punishments”, is that the things that are used as punishments while they are things the child doesn’t like to do, they are usually things like cleaning or organizing… If you are constantly forcing them to clean as a punishment you are reinforcing negative feelings towards cleaning all together, which will lead to 1 of 2 possible outcomes; 1 they hate cleaning and refuse to do it, their personal hygiene may start to lack and when they move out they may end up looking like a hoarder (this is the way my parents taught us, and this is how my sister still lives most of the time). Or it will (as my husbands parents did) cause them to have a form of Post Traumatic Stress related to cleaning which eventually becomes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and literal anxiety at the idea of having even a slightly messy house. You have to be logical with your punishments, if you make them hate cleaning, b/c you literally WANT them to hate it (b/c then how else would it be a good punishment?) Then they will grow up with some psychological deficit related to cleaning. 1+1=2.

  2. How about an article offering practical suggestions for parents that DO work? It is always easier to say what doesn’t work than to offer suggestions as to what does work.

  3. I have to disagree with this. The article only looks at the most superficial aspects of each discipline technique. It doesn’t even attempt to understand the what, why or how these things are (or should be) done. Rather it tries to just simply dismiss them all as saying they’re ‘bad’ with this basic idea:

    To Quote:

    “Overall, all these methods

  4. I have found that it is the spirit with which discipline is enacted that makes it violent or non-violent, non-violent being the goal in a gentle discipline model.

    I see no problem with doing “time out” if it’s removing a child from a situation, where perhaps, they are over stimulated, hitting, etc…and bringing them to a quiet place for a few minutes and sitting with them (at a preschool or younger age) give them a drink of water, review gentle ways to treat friends, etc…

    If it’s “YOU MUST GO IN TIME-OUT!” …then the focus goes directly to the enforcer and a power play, instead of the injured person or the teaching of appropriate behavior.

    I have found that anything with “ego” in it is generally NOT healthy for the child or for the parent. Mamma bear might say “in our family, we put coats and hats on when it’s cold, or we don’t go outside”…but if there is defiance there, they will learn when they get very very cold. I had my 3 year old ask me for a hat after one such incidence, and there was no punishment or judgement necessary. “I would like you to wear a hat, so you do not get cold or get sick” now reminds him. For me, it’s about having faith in the process…faith and acceptance that at the end of the day, we are NOT “in control” of them…they are people…and we can say “we will not be able to return to this restaurant if we do not have follow etiquette”, and as long as you are always truthful, they will believe you. I find there can be a fine line between a threat and this sort of, natural consequence, but this is how I work the “real world” logic; if we run around, we will be asked to leave. It is impolite to disturb other people while they are eating etc…

    Issues of safety are the times where I will grab and run…if need be…but now we can talk about that…and I will say “I’m sorry I grabbed your arm, but what you did was unsafe and it had to stop”.

  5. i agree. time outs are used excessively with no solution. like spanking, it stops the behavior quickly but not permanently and nothing is solved; that’s why many children spend a good portion of time in time-outs for the same behavior that caused their prevous time-out. parents are either at the end of their rope, lacking postive parenting skills or just too tired to address the real issues.

  6. I concur. Oh my gosh, without meaning to be disrespectful and rude, some mothers have TOO much time on their hands. I give my children plenty of thought and attention, but since when do we need to keep children from EVER feeling anything “negative”?

  7. Thank you for posting this. It literally made me cry. I have such a hard time when my house is even slightly messy, YET I also become really angry when I clean. I thought it was just from growing up with a Mom that was compulsive about the house being clean and made me and my brother clean the house for hours EVERY Saturday. I mean the kind of cleaning most people only do a few times a year. She would also make us do crazy things like clean the inside of the fireplace, clean the cobwebs from under the eaves (my brother was terrified of spiders and we were kids, not even teenagers), clean the ceiling in the kitchen etc…when we were in trouble. Everything you wrote makes sense. THANK YOU.

  8. What a lot of BS. So now suddenly all forms of punishment are wrong and our children can do what they like without consequence or knowing that what they have done is unacceptable? Get a grip! Discipline is a requirement of good parenting to ensure our children are aware of morals, rules, results and what to expect from life. Currently living in London, I can see where a lack of discipline has caused the degradation of an entire society (think back to the childrens’ riots and looting around the UK in 2011!) – people grow up not really knowing right from wrong or where to draw the line. This is very apparent in peoples’ behaviour here and how they talk to others, showing no respect or “common sense” (no longer common as not taught, along with basic manners).

    Your statement is ludicrous:

  9. discipline, when done properly, is a multifaceted moment to moment thing. You cannot arbitrarily condemn one method and reward another with no context on which to judge any of it. I have a 27 month old son and in the 15 months I have been disciplining him I have used, at one time or another, every method I have ever heard of. I always give him warnings, and wherever possible “punishment” fits the crime. When that isn’t an option, or he is just completely beyond reasoning with (as 2yr olds often are) he gets a “time-out” not to shame him or even to punish him really, but to provide him with a space to feel what he’s feeling while at the same time giving me the option of a few minutes away from the meltdown. I only require an apology when he has actually done something (like hit someone) and yes, very very occasionally, when I feel that he could put himself in the hospital if his behavior continued, I spank him. Never more than once, and only if it involves something like jumping from the couch to the coffeetable or playing with electrical sockets, or running towards the road, but when they don’t understand (and most 2 year olds don’t) the severity of their actions I don’t really care why he stops, I just want him to be alive and in one piece. Too many parenting sites try to put discipline in a box. You absolutely may not do this, you have to do that for all of the following circumstances. Every person is different, one approach will not fit all children, and certainly not all situations. I think the most important thing any parent can do is to try their best to understand why their children are behaving the way they are behaving, and then take an approach that addresses that specific issue, but sometimes we just have to express to them that something is not acceptable, and in that case whatever works works. There is a difference between “spanking” in the 50’s sense of inflicting a certain amount of pain for whatever misbehaviour they committed and “spanking” in the sense of inflicting a small amount of pain for something that left to nature would be MUCH more painful if not deadly. Similarly there is a difference between “sit here and think about what you did wrong” time outs and “take a break” time outs. Time-out doesn’t have to be about shaming, or even punishing. It can be just a few moments to allow your child and yourself to regain composure. I put my son in his crib for his time outs and I walk away. When I stop feeling angry, usually a couple minutes later, i return. Sometimes my son has calmed down and sometimes he hasn’t, but either way I pick him up and we talk about the situation. there is nothing to gain from 2 angry people trying to engage each other, a breather can allow for calmer, more peaceful parenting after the fact. Its not so much the method as how the method is enacted. Anything done with love can be part of an effective discipline strategy.

  10. Reprove with sharpness when moved upon by the spirit of good, showing forth afterwords an increase of love. Failing this last part in the case of ANY punishment your child will believe that you hate them and the bond of trust will be strained or broken. My father would spank me, but afterwords would sit and speak with us before and after until we were “good” with it. I always felt better after a spanking than worse because of this and preferred it myself to any other punishment. I am a lesser parent because, regardless of the punishment I use, I most often fail to be kind to my children afterwards to make certain they understand and recall that I love them.

  11. I would add that I agree with the author that ANY punishment is damaging, but in the way a sculptor “damages” a stone. As Michaelangelo said, when he carved a lion from a stone he simply carved away everything that wasn’t the lion. Does anyone look at Michaelangelo’s sculptures and think “wow he really messed up that beautiful stone. No, they are amazed at the effectiveness of the “damage” he did that created beauty and art. Parenting is equally an art where we sculpt the next generation. The author believes that the stone will sculpt itself and somehow turn into the lion we’d hoped for with no effort or sacrifice on the part of a parent. My main worry as a parent is carving away too much and I hope to err on the side of too little sculpting as, in the old builders addage, “you can always easily cut some off a board that’s too long, but good luck adding it back once it’s gone.”

  12. I have to agree with some of the posters here. I think this does not look into the use of each one. As for painful reinforcement, I am completely against it. You can prepare for or avoid dangerous objects, activities, et cetera and instill knowledge of them in other ways.

    They do not have the 30+ years experience we do with emotions, stress, and the fast moving world around us. As adults though, we still get stressed out. We need to remove ourselves from the situation. Thus, when a child is too overwhelmed to respond appropriately, I believe in removing them from the situation. But no more than a few minutes per year of age and discussing with them that it is not a punishment, only an opportunity for them to calm down.

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