Time-in Before Time-out: Are Time-outs Not Working for You?

By Lisa Kosan

time in Time-outs can be useful for briefly separating a wound-up child from a tense situation, but many families find that an endless series of time-outs just doesn't work as a long-term teaching tool. So what should parents do to help their children learn the lifelong habits and skills that their family values? Experts say that if we shift the emphasis away from punishment and toward quality “time-in” with our kids, discipline will follow.

Each of the Oliver family’s four kids has had his or her share of time-outs in the “big chair.” These days, though, they visit that isolated corner of the living room far less frequently.

It’s not that the kids don’t get into trouble, says their dad, Bart Oliver. But the time-outs were just too negative and never really improved anyone’s behavior. The three boys – a 4-year-old and twin 5-year-olds – and their 9-year-old sister would usually fuss, squirm, and sass their parents during a time-out. And, if the others felt neglected during a sibling’s sentence in the big chair, they’d run roughshod through the rest of their house.

“The key for us now is to praise and enforce good behavior,” says Oliver. “If you focus more on the negative you just keep having negative experiences.”

Time-outs can be effective at calming a rowdy child or teaching a quick lesson: you hit, you sit. But many parents find that they’re not a great long-term discipline strategy if a child balks, if you’re forced to pin him in a corner, or if you’re both screaming. All you have then is a grown-up in a power struggle with a kid, and any attempt to teach or model something positive is lost.

So what do you do when your daughter whines every single time you’re on the phone? Or when your son mocks you when you tell him to clean his room?

The trick is to avoid these scenarios before you even have to consider punishment. That means teaching your child anger management, good manners, responsibility or independent playing skills. It means spending good, fun time with your child, listening and involving him or her in your life. In other words, avoid time-outs with “time-in.”

“Time-in can be playing a board game or working in the yard together,” says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “It’s baking cookies, making popcorn, going to Scouts, singing in the church choir, fishing, rubbing backs, giving hugs. It’s just the stuff that we do together that makes it fun.”

Time-outs, Christophersen adds, “should just briefly interrupt that good time.” Time-in is when you teach your child what they need to know.

Next: Part 2Time Out from Positive Reinforcement?

Part 3Less Talking = More Hands-on Learning

Part 4 - Tools for Kids and Parents to Use in Interpersonal Situations

Part 5 - Help Children Blow Away Anger

Part 6 - Gentle Touching Sends a Loving Message

Further Reading

Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime, by Edward R. Christophersen and Susan L. Mortweet, American Psychological Association, 2002.

Lisa Kosan, a frequent contributor to United Parenting Publications, is an award-winning writer and the mother of two boys.