Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Time-Out: Time and Child Behavior Management

Time-out is not as easy to manage as people think.

Years ago-- and for much of human existence-many parents felt they had a simple, effective response to a child's misbehavior: "a good smack". Today, although smacking, is far from uncommon, many thoughtful parents reject the practice. They understand that physical punishment does not necessarily work very well to prevent misbehavior. They are concerned that they may be modeling aggressive acts which they do not want to see mirrored by their children. And they realize that when physical punishment escalates, it may verge on or even turn into physical abuse.

So what do they do instead? The response du jour is time-out. Rather than smacking the child, they send or take her to an isolated area and try to make her stay there for some planned time period. Often, the length of time in isolation depends on the child's age, and some advice suggests that one minute per year of age is appropriate.

Is time-out an effective approach? That depends on what you're trying to accomplish. Yes, it probably helps parents refrain from the physical punishment that they want to avoid and it gives the adults something to do that seems to make a clear statement about the child's undesirable behavior. If the child stays in the time-out area without too much of a fight, time-out may give both parent and child a chance to "go to their corners" and simmer down before resuming their interaction. However, if there's a fight about going to the time-out area or staying there, the existing problem may escalate rapidly to a physical confrontation in which the parent tries to make the child go, while the child screams, kicks, and scratches. Advice about using time-out does not usually include reliable instructions about how to make this happen in a peaceful manner. If the parents were able to get the child to cooperate, they probably wouldn't be trying to use time-out!

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

What about the long-term effects? Does time-out following an undesirable behavior result in fewer occurrences of that behavior? That depends. The whole idea of time-out is that undesirable behaviors may occur frequently because they have been rewarded-- by a parent's attention (even though it is angry), by other children's amusement and admiration, or just by excitement when life has been boring. When behaviors become frequent because they have been rewarded, they can be made less frequent by withholding the reward (although this takes a while). Time-out was originally thought of as a way to prevent the child from being rewarded for misbehavior. The child in time-out did not get attention from the parent or from other children, and nothing exciting or interesting happened there. It would make sense that IF a misbehavior had become frequent because it was rewarded, time-out should eventually make it less frequent.

The problem with that big IF is that many undesirable child behaviors are not and have not been rewarded by other people. Instead, they are rewarding in themselves. We don't have to reward a child by attention for grabbing candy and eating it when he is hungry. Any food would be rewarding, and sweets have a reward value of their own, which many of us can use our hips to demonstrate. Withholding attention does not make the candy less rewarding for the hungry child. The same thing applies to wiggling when restless or uncomfortable, crying when frightened, or falling asleep when bored or tired. If a misbehavior developed through a process of social reward, withholding social reward should reduce it, but if it did not develop in that way, time-out is irrelevant.

Another issue about time-out: let's suppose we are trying to deal with a socially-rewarded behavior like shouting out naughty words. This isn't particularly fun or rewarding in itself, but it can be fun if it makes a normally indifferent family member become agitated and attentive. The plan may be to quickly escort the cursing child to the time-out place, away from all the associated family excitement, and leave him there for a few minutes, then calmly bring him out without mentioning the incident. This is carefully done for ten times-- then, some choice words are spoken while everyone is rushing around getting ready for company, and some adult turns on the (otherwise ignored) child, focuses on him, yells, screams, and does everything that the child perceives as rewarding attention. This was just one mistake, but what a mistake it was--- now the child has learned that it takes ten or 11 incidents to get anyone to pay attention in this way. And it will now take much, much, much longer for the time-out routine to do its work.

There's a similar problem if adults use time-out as they would physical punishment-- threaten with it, scold the child afterwards, or be rough and angry as they take the child to the time-out area. In these circumstances, time-out is not really time-out, a removal of social rewards, but is instead a very confusing set of social and emotional communications.

Next time: some alternative approaches.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


Subscribe to Child Myths

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.