Are time outs time off or serving time?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: Posted on 4th January, 1999

Someone had written:

My active, incredible boy child 🙂 is in a time-out right now. Now I know time-outs don’t work.

A poster replied:

I do think that time outs work sometimes – it gives both parents and children a chance to take a deep breath and think things through. I am just as likely to put myself in “time out” when things are going badly as I am to put the kids in “time out.” “Time out” simply means time away from the situation. Time out can mean going into a quiet room and reading a book – it does not have to mean punishment. It is simply a break from the pressure of the current situation.

Is it not worth distinguishing between the following two different meanings of the word “time out”?

  1. of your own free will going into a quiet room and reading a book for however long you choose (a relaxing time) 

and

  1. against your will going into a quiet room for however long someone else makes you stay there (imprisonment) 

Do we not need two words here? Is “time out” time off, or is it serving time? If one fails to distinguish between these two very different cases it might be thought that this ambiguous use of the term “time out” is a deliberate equivocation in which one is spuriously justifying coercive time out (2), using arguments that refer to non-coercive time out (1).

The mere fact that parents using time out (2) punishment may order their child to the time-out chair or room in a soft voice does not make it time out (1). It is the meaning that counts, not the tone of voice, and if the meaning belies the tone of voice, that just compounds the punishment by adding a double bind.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘Are time outs time off or serving time?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/are-time-outs-time-off-or-serving-time/