Time out: the baby with the bathwater. Listen carefully.


Have you ever tried something new, a new electronic device or something for the kids and got frustrated and said,

“This *&^% thing doesn’t work…why does everyone say these things are awesome…this thing is stupid!” 

Then someone comes over, grabs it, does something simple to it and says, “you’re doing it wrong…that is why it wasn’t working.”

It wasn’t working because you weren’t doing it right or you overlooked something very elementary.  Very simple.  I can’t help but think of the ultimate family man, Clark “Sparky” Griswold, in Christmas Vacation karate chopping the reindeer because the light switch was off, preventing the display of his Christmas cheer:

Here is the connection:

There are a lot of behavior strategies that are commonly misunderstood and misused and when they don’t work there are books written and websites dedicated to very strong responses regarding how awful these strategies are and how they “never” work.

Case in point, I commented on an internet article on time out two months or so and received a lesson in the incredible emotions, disdain, and clear misunderstanding connected to this thing we call “time out,” not only on my Facebook page, but on the other pages associated with the conversation.  It was if those who even think about time out should be reported to child protective services.  

What was clear was that the term “time out” has been over-used, misused and mischaracterized so that many parents who thought they were using “time out” were unsuccessful.  It created more problems, it was difficult to maintain, it did NOT help.  This resulted in “time out” (even though what they were likely doing was wrong and NOT time out) being framed as a terrible, heartless parenting strategy that “never works” (the phrase “never works” is what triggered me to respond to the article due to how insanely incorrect this statement was). 

OK, now, for my thoughts.

I strongly believe in an incredibly positive and proactive style of parenting and behavior management.  I believe reinforcement strategies are the strongest tools in your parenting tool belt.  Proactive teaching in a way that reduces, as much as possible, the likelihood of “error” or challenging behavior is my mantra.  For example, waking up several times throughout the night to take a child to the bathroom can and does work to teach toilet training sometimes without error!  Helping your child navigate the social demands of a birthday party before the party, teaching ahead of time, turns a potentially difficult situation into a successful learning opportunity. Taking shorter trips to the store so it can be successful instead of painful is more effective than taking away your kid’s Nintendo DS (or threatening Santa’s naughty list) because they screamed through the two hour long escapade through the mall on the week before Christmas.  Check out my archives and my Facebook posts and see how much I believe in prevention and proaction…its pretty clear.  

I do not believe punishment strategies are to be used to shape behavior, but do believe there are times when time out, when used appropriately and with sufficient caution, is an effective and prudent strategy.  Decades of research have supported this.  I have a top 10 list…check it out here.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “punishment.”

Punishment: something that makes the likelihood of that behavior less likely to occur in the future (not this time, next time).  It is not what we think should be “punishing” (sometimes yelling at your kid for saying a dirty word makes the kid say more dirty words…whoops), but what actually happens to the behavior.  Does it go away, or persist despite your “punishment” efforts?  

As I have stated in previous posts, things like spanking, timeout and harsh words don’t always fit this definition.  If spanking does not reduce the future likelihood of a behavior occurring it is not punishment. STOP IT.  If time out does not reduce the future likelihood of a behavior occurring it is not punishment. STOP ITIf harsh words do not reduce the future likelihood of a behavior occurring it is not punishment. STOP IT

So, in many cases, these strategies do NOT work because of the nature of the behavior and are therefore potentially harmful for a variety of reasons, but it is not the strategy that should be deemed ineffective.Herein lies the misinformation and misleading comments from those in the parenting “web world.”

So, here is the lesson. 

Think through the strategies you are using to reduce unwanted or undesirable behaviors.  Are they working?  Are you finding yourself doing them more instead of less?  Have you read up on “time out” and how it should and should not be used?  Do you actually even keep up with this to know?  Is your spanking reducing the occurrence of the behavior for which you spanked?  Remember: it is not what makes the behavior stop in the moment, but what makes the behavior less likely to occur again.

Be informed…let me help.

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