What’s the Problem with Time-Out, Anyway?

Photography:Poppy Peterson Photography

By Larissa Dann

Lately, it seems parents and carers feel disempowered. We’re not supposed to smack, and now even time-out is being questioned. So how do we discipline? And what’s wrong with time-out, anyway?

Discipline (the verb) can mean either ‘to teach’, or ‘to control’ (Gordon, T. 1989). If we use discipline to control children, then we rely on reward and punishment to change a child’s behaviour – to gain compliance.  

One of the most commonly used punishments is time-out. Many schools, childcare centres and parents rely on time-out as a punishment, to discipline children. 

During the years my daughter attended childcare we had several discussions around her fear of punitive time-out. Her distress, and my experience as a parent educator, drove me to investigate the effects of time-out.

What is Time-Out? 

For the purposes of this discussion, the definition of time-out is a punishment. A child is excluded from being with others for a certain period of time. They may stay in the same room (say, the ‘naughty corner/step’), or be moved to another room for a certain period of time (for example, one minute for each year of life). The parent or carer controls when and where the child goes to time-out, and when the child is allowed to return to the class or family.

A Child’s Experience of Time-Out in Childcare 

Many years ago I recorded a wide-ranging discussion with my daughter. She had just turned five, and was not happy about going to childcare.

One of her concerns was that she was afraid of being counted (1,2,3), because the threat at the end was… time-out. Her fear of this punishment was palpable.

Phoebe: “I didn’t get into trouble. We don’t get into trouble. We just get to three. We just have to… they just say ‘OK you’re onto one!’. And when you’re onto free you’re… um (voice breaking with fear)… and when you’re onto free, um that’s your last, that’s your last warning when you get onto free. When you get onto two, that’s… you’ve got one last chance to go, OR… time-out!” 

Mum: “Oh really. Three is time out. And you look very worried about time out.” 

Phoebe: “Uh ha” 

Interestingly, my daughter had never actually been put into punitive time-out at either childcare or home. Her deep concern was based on her observation of the effects of time-out on her friends. I wondered to myself – if time-out had such an effect on observers – what was the experience of children who were actually punished with time-out?

The Effects of Time-Out

Time-out and isolation, ostracism and self-concept 

When a child is excluded from interacting with others (time-out), they are effectively ostracised (isolated from relationship) by those more powerful than them – parents and teachers.   

Recent brain research suggests that isolating people from others important to them causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness. (Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. 2014). Is time-out really a gentle alternative to smacking, when the child has a similar physical experience of both punishments? 

Ostracism studies in adult relationships found that excluding people threatens the needs of: self-esteem; belonging; control; and meaningful existence (Williams, K, 2007). 

If this is the effect on adults, how much greater is the impact of social isolation on children?

Excluding a child from family/class activity, while keeping the child in the same room (‘quiet time’), is perceived as a ‘softer’ punishment than banishment to another room. However, quiet time may be more harmful. A child essentially becomes ‘invisible’ (think of the dunce’s hat). Not being acknowledged, the public shame of exclusion, feeling as though you don’t exist… isn’t this potentially devastating for a child? 

Time-out does not teach social and emotional life skills 

“What’s done to children, they will do to society” (Karl A. Menninger). Remember – discipline means ‘to teach’. At its essence, time-out is a method of resolving conflict between a caregiver and a child, where the caregiver wins and the child loses. When parents or caregivers use their power to put a child in time-out, children learn that this is how to resolve conflict. 

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