Time out is not taking time out

From the archives: The original post was posted on 21st September, 1995

“We use time out… it works if you use it right.”

“Make a special place for time out…like a chair. Get a kitchen timer with a loud buzzer. Put it where he can see it, so he knows how much time he has left. This will help him to realize that it WILL come to an end.”

Time out is not as much a punishment as it is a time to sit and think quietly, or a time to stop a bad interaction… a time to calm down.

Tell that to the child. I have nothing against the child sitting on a chair and thinking – I do that all the time, myself – but there is one small difference here, a difference which makes all the difference. Next they’ll be saying that being strapped in the electric chair isn’t punishment. I find it rather odd that the poster thinks that extreme coercion is not “a bad interaction”.

“The amount of time is important… 5 minutes is lots of time for a five year old…even 3 minutes works well.”

I know lots of children who are quite happy to spend hours sitting and thinking quietly.

“Be consistent. If your little guy screams yells and gets up during time out, explain that the time out begins when he sits quietly.”

But before implementing this system, one thing you ought to consider, from a Popperian point of view, is this: on the occasions when you are in fact wrong over the point at issue, what will then be the effect of the time out on the child? If you can’t conceive of that possibility, can you conceive of the possibility that you are in fact right, and that it is you who are being forced to endure the time out, rather than your child? How would you feel?

“Keep starting over until he sits quietly. (start with 1 or 2 minutes)”

We have all the elements of a double bind here – the child is in an intense relationship with the parent; the parent communicates mixed messages – she tortures him psychologically (the important part of any kind of torture always its psychological effect, of course) and she is telling him that this is not punishment, expressing love, detaching herself from his suffering; and now the poster says we must not allow the child to express his thoughts and feelings about it.

“Praise him for cooperating when he does. Don’t talk to him or pay attention to him when he is in time out. Do something nice with him (like a hug or a story) when it is over.”

This sounds like behaviourist dog training.

This is the ultimate in intellect destruction. When a person is coerced, what usually happens is that she introduces irrationality into her mind in an attempt to limit the damage. With some punishments, children can confine the damage to a relatively limited area of their mind, but with these sorts of multi-pronged attacks, the damage is much wider. The parent is closing off all avenues by which the child might try to escape damage. Sometimes when I say things like this, parents look at me as though I am on another planet, so maybe I should elucidate, or is this obvious?

“If he does something really ‘wicked’, talk about it calmly after the time out… to try to understand why it happened at all.”

“Sometimes I take ‘time out’… when I am ‘acting out’… I’ll even tell the kids I’m taking time out to calm down. It helps them understand that there is a good reason for it… and that it is not a punishment.”

But when the poster “takes time out”, it is a positive action which solves a problem for her, by her own lights. When she forces a child to “take time out” against the child’s will, the time out does nothing whatever to address the child’s problem situation, and indeed, itself constitutes a whole new problem, and one which she systematically prevents the child from solving. Labelling these two entirely different things identically – “time out” – is just a way of deceiving the child and ensuring maximum damage on future occasions.

The question I have for advocates of time outs, is why? I notice that the poster advocates trying to understand why certain actions happened in the first place. If between you, you and the child can find answers to those sort of questions, why should it still be necessary to enforce a time out as well? What do you think children learn from this? Why do you think it helps them to be told these false things? Why is violence superior to reason?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Time out is not taking time out’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/time-out-is-not-taking-time-out/