Thursday, January 27, 2011


A few weeks ago I wrote about the gentle discipline tricks and tools that I find useful in parenting my preverbal toddler. One of the tools I mentioned was a ‘time-in’.

To recap: a time-in basically involves allowing your child to experience and express big emotions in a calm and supportive environment that includes your presence.

Shortly after writing this I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine who was unsure of how that is different from a time-out, and why I don't believe that time-outs are a gentle or effective parenting tool.

I'll start with how it is different. While the practice is similar in that it often requires leaving an overwhelming/over stimulating/frustrating situation or environment in favour of a calmer and safer one, I think it is very different in that the child remains emotionally and physically supported throughout the process of a time-in, where as a time-out usually involves leaving the child alone and/or ignoring the child for a specified amount of time. Unlike a time-out, a time-in is not a punishment. And I believe that the lessons it teaches are much more valuable.

Here's an example from my home just the other day:

Oliver, always the dare devil, is using a riding toy with wheels to climb on and jump off of. I am sure this is a fun game, but totally a head injury waiting to happen.

After a few attempts to show him the safe way to play with said toy and distract with other games, it becomes clear that the temptation is too great and my expectations of his behaviour are too high with the toy still in the room, I decided to put it away for another day.

Oliver, despite my attempts to do so when he is momentarily distracted, becomes incredibly upset when I do this.

After re-offering a safer jumping game to play involving stacked couch cushions, as well as crossing hunger, fatigue, and over stimulation off the list of reasons for his behaviour it is clear that he is simply upset about loosing his toy.

I sit on the floor beside him so that I am at his level and tell him 'I know you really like that toy, I am sorry it had to get put away' I open my arms to offer a hug. Oliver declines but does take my hand to hold. He continues to cry, he points at the closet door where the toy is put away, he signs 'more' and 'please' over and over in rapid succession. I tell him again 'I had to put it away because we were having trouble playing safely. We can try again another time' I then lead him away from the closet door (away from the immediate situation/reminder of the toy) and to our nursing chair. He is still upset, but we sit together in the chair until he signs to nurse, then later shows interest in the couch cushion game I had set up.

Through gentle discipline (teaching, distracting, meeting needs, and finally removing temptation) the original unwanted behaviour of standing on and jumping off his toy was stopped. And through the time-in Oliver was allowed to feel and express his feelings with my support and guidance.

Acknowledging his feelings and providing a safe environment for him to express them by using the time-in technique, I reinforced that his thoughts and feelings are valid and important and that my love and support is unconditional.

This brings me to why I don't personally believe that time-outs are a gentle or effective parenting tool.

I believe that, using the example situation above, had I chosen to try and teach Oliver how to play safely with his toy by using a time-out method, I would have created a Him vs. Me situation that would have only escalated and not provided a workable solution to the problem.

Instead of coming away from the situation feeling calm and ready to start a new game as we did after our time-in, we would have likely felt resentful, disconnected, and perhaps even guilty. My own memories of being put on time-outs as a child are of feeling dismissed, angry, and like nobody would listen to what I had to say.

The likely hood that all of that would prevent Oliver from going straight back to the toy to jump on is very low.

First of all, he is too young. Though I often see parents of toddlers using various forms of the time-out technique, many professionals who promote the practice do not recommend it for children under 3 years of age.

Oliver is not yet old enough to understand cause and effect the same way you and I do, and even if he did eventually learn that action A = punishment B, he completely lacks any form of self control. Even knowing that A=B he would still jump on the car toy. Not because he is ‘testing boundaries’ or being ‘manipulative’ and in need of further punishment, but because it's a fun game. In fact, even after repeatedly experiencing the natural consequences of jumping on the toy by falling off and getting hurt, a toddler or young child will still repeat the action over and over again.

Secondly, I do not believe that punitive discipline techniques like time-outs are effective for older children either. More then resulting in an actual understanding of right and wrong, or acceptable and unacceptable, I think it causes children to become secretive and less trusting.

In short, I believe punitive discipline results in children who will do the right thing close to 100% of the time someone is watching, and none of the time they are alone, and then hide those times they did the wrong thing with lies. Personally, I find more value in teaching my child to be accountable to himself, instead of relying on external authority to police his behaviour.

I also think punitive discipline, including time-outs, creates relationships and environments where children are afraid to make mistakes. This fear of mistakes comes at a cost to a child's creativity, problem solving skills, and ability to learn valuable life lessons. (Many adults I know are still so afraid of making mistakes that they studiously maintain a status quo that makes them completely miserable instead of stepping outside the box to find a life more fulfilling.)

So while time-outs may be effective for producing desirable behaviour under very specific circumstances with some children (certainly not all), I do not think they are as effective and healthful for children as mainstream parenting wisdom might lead you to believe.

But like most things in life, parenting or otherwise, there are many paths to choose from. I do not claim to be on the right path for everyone, merely the right path for me. Each of these paths has pros and cons that each parent must weigh for themselves and their families. I believe that the cons of punitive discipline far out weigh the pros, and have therefore researched and come up with a system of gentle discipline that works for my family and does not include the use of time outs or other punishment/reward based techniques.


sophieandmomma said... [Reply to comment]

Wow, I love this. I need advice and examples like this! sophie is only 4 months, and we're trying to be a bit more firmer and show her that we are the parents...even though she is 4 months old. I have found if I talk to her, and let her know what I am doing and what I want of her....I find that she seems a bit more calmer. For example, nap times and bed times...she seems to understand... or maybe I'm imagining it!

New follower! :)

life-is-learning said... [Reply to comment]

this is a great post illustrating the difference between positive dicipline with intent to facilitate and punitive dicipline with intent to modify behavior. thanks!

Locavore Family said... [Reply to comment]

This was a great post as it affirmed my gentle discipling approach with my 18 month old daughter. It's great to know I'm not alone.

Sabrina said... [Reply to comment]

This is a wonderful post. I already do this with my three year old son and I see that he is more senstive and kind that a lot of his peers.

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