So there you are one afternoon, at the end of your rope with an out-of-control three-year-old. You know you won’t spank him, and you have become mindful of avoiding shame-based measures, so what’s left? Is “Time Out” the answer? At risk of bringing on the wrath of parents everywhere, my answer is no.
Time-outs were conceived as a more humane alternative to spanking, but the problem is, they land a blow to the brain and psyche rather than to the bottom. Right at the moment when the child is overwhelmed by a flood of emotions he cannot manage, and he most needs the regulating presence -- that is, close physical presence -- of his attachment figure, he’s banished to his room or his “Naughty Chair” or his “Thinking Rug” or his [fill in the blank with any of a list of prettied-up names people have devised for this particular form of exile].
What a tantruming child (or, more helpful to think of him instead as a struggling child) most needs is time-in -- that is, in secure, soothing arms, in the steadying, regulating sphere of your engaged presence. We have to outgrow this tired notion that a 3- or 4-year-old is manipulating us, and to hold him is a reward. NO!! At that age children truly don't possess the neural equipment to construct such Machiavellian manipulations.
In fact, their tender neural equipment is in a period of sensitive development at this point and time-out is counter-productive in that regard: it deprives a child of regulation just when she needs it most! Isolation from you throws her system into protection mode, and erodes her trust in and relationship with her parent.
After all the fussing is over and order is restored, the memory trace etched in her social brain is, When I’m having trouble, I’m on my own. This is not the foundation we’re striving to offer Generation Peace. We wish for them the suite of healthy social and relational capacities of resilience -- which includes being comfortable reaching out for help when needed. Let’s not extinguish that skill with our well-meaning attempts at positive discipline!
If Not Time-Out, then WHAT?
Consider using a time-out in the way it was originally conceived in sports: for a whole team, not just one struggling player (well, except for ice hockey, but you get the point). It's about, "Let's all take a pause to regroup, rethink our approach, and return refreshed." Used in this “us-as-a-team” manner -- “Let us take a time out” -- it is a demonstration that while you’re not happy with the way things are going or the choices he has just made, you are on your child's side in this challenging moment -- and always. You can find your own name and style for this regrouping process; in psychologist Lawrence Cohen’s family it’s “A Meeting on the Couch”:
Discipline is a chance to improve your connection with your children instead of forming another wall that separates you. The best way to make discipline more connecting is to think We have a problem instead of My kid is misbehaving. Sometimes just changing the scene and making reconnection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together.
Indeed. In his wonderful book Playful Parenting, Cohen offers a roadmap for parents wanting to enrich their family life with more play -- and that is a worthy goal for all of us. Parenting for peace is all about providing the most fertile ground possible for the blossoming of our children’s social and cognitive intelligence. Among the animal kingdom -- in which we are supposedly the crowning achievement -- it is a fact that the more intelligent the animal, the more it continues to play throughout adulthood.
Time-Out for Play? YES!
But somewhere along the way to adulthood the vast majority of us forgot how to play. Life became serious business -- and parenting along with it. And especially for those of us who had less security in our childhood, who may have never really felt safe to enter that imaginary frolic zone, when invited by our children to play, we’re like deer in the headlights. Our own uneasiness seeds uneasiness in our children and this itself can evoke challenging behavior.
The sad irony in this negative feedback loop is that these are the parents whose buttons are particularly sensitive, their own childhood “stuff” so ready, like a dry tinder box, to be set off by the sparks of a child’s unwanted behaviors. The beauty of Cohen’s approach is that it offers a playful way out of that contracting spiral that is helpful and healing to everyone: “As long as we are grown up enough to handle things like keeping them safe and getting dinner on the table, our children want and need us to loosen up.”
If I’d had the gift of this perspective the one time I spanked my son, I might have used one of Cohen’s many playful ideas to free us both out of that tight spot -- such as pretending to be angry:
Okay, so let’s play the game of "Mommy pretends to be really angry at Ian" [making an exaggerated lion face]: "I’m sooooooooo angry at Ian…I may have to steal his shoe!”
...at which point Ian would have felt drawn in by my silliness, rather than pushed away by my own lack of inner regulation and, of course, by my physically violent act. The fact is, parenting can actually be a whole lot more fun and light-hearted that we typically realize! We just need to get over our culturally imprinted worry that if we use humor to diffuse and redirect a disciplinary jam, we’re somehow failing our parental role by not taking it seriously enough… or rewarding/reinforcing “misbehavior” by not bringing the hammer down… or slipping down that slippery slope of being their friend rather than their parent.
Lead with a Light Touch & Warm Heart
Credible leaders don’t lose their composure, it’s as simple as that. When it’s necessary to reprimand your child, strive to do it without a raised voice or the look of disgust or cruelty in your eyes. Aside from the corrosive effects of shaming, the child will lose trust in you over time, and will look towards others as models. “He doesn’t respect me” will be your (accurate) complaint later, especially at an age when he most needs to be able to learn from his parents, such as during his teen years.
It is always more effective to focus on what the child may do, rather than issuing a “You may not…” prohibition. This approach also reduces the risk of putting the child into a disconnected neurobiological protection state. In fact, educator Barbara Patterson suggests that the very word “May” can have seemingly magical properties, as in, “You may put the forks on the table now”: it presents no question for the child to either answer or ignore, and it implies the notion of privilege to be doing what the adult is suggesting.
And indeed, a child enjoying a secure, connected relationship with her parents does find it a privilege and a joy to behave in harmony with their wishes. In this way, robust attachment is like the power steering of parenting! In his important book on key dynamics in attachment, Hold On To Your Child, Gordon Neufeld cautions that this “power assisted” aspect of the parent-child relationship requires “careful nurturance and trust”:
It is a violation of the relationship not to believe in the child’s desire [to behave well] when it actually exists, for example to accuse the child of harboring ill intentions when we disapprove of her behavior. Such accusations can easily trigger defenses in the child, harm the relationship, and make her feel like being bad. …It’s a vicious circle. External motivators for behavior such as reward and punishments may destroy the precious internal motivation to be good, making leverage by such artificial means necessary by default. As an investment in easy parenting, trusting in a child’s desire to be good for us is one of the best.
Keeping this sacred trust in mind, and basic principles regarding the significance of your example, and the importance of relationship and play; of clear messages and limited choices; of healthy rhythms; remember that the single most pivotal ingredient in harmonious, joyful parenting is you -- your confidence, conviction, and trust in yourself and in your child.
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences around the world, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As well as good old parenting stuff. As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."