Time-in Before Time-out: Less Talking More Hands-on Learning

By Lisa Kosan

Another way to improve the parent-child relationship and have a positive impact on a child’s behavior is to quit lecturing and provide more hands-on learning for children to develop skills, whether it’s cooperation, doing laundry or riding a bike.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we have become convinced that we can change anything in our kids by talking,” says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “My guess is that nothing could be further from the truth.”

Parents spend too much time giving kids directions (Get dressed. Finish your homework. Stop doing headstands on the dining room table!) and not enough time listening and being quiet so our children will talk.

Consider this tactic: Pick one part of your day – the drive to school, for example – when you do not initiate or change a conversation. Stick with that policy for 10 years, Christophersen says in all seriousness. Your child will learn that he can say anything, whether to comment on a huge oak tree you pass, or, years later, that a friend offered him drugs.

In Parenting that Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime, co-authored with Susan Mortweet, Christophersen urges parents to figure out what skills they want their child to have five or 10 years down the road, then set about teaching them. Here are some examples:

Sharing – If learning to share is an important goal for your family, don’t just plop your kid on the couch and lecture him about the advantages of giving his brother one of the last two cookies on the plate. Bring them to a restaurant on a regular basis and take turns sharing your fries. Say “please” and “thank you.” Your kid might hand you the brown crinkly ones at first, but he’ll get the picture with lots of practice.

Christophersen and his wife used the french fry technique with their son, who’s now 28. “He learned how to share not by being punished or being belittled,” Christophersen says. “He learned because we taught him a skill. We made it a part of our lives.”

Patience – Children also need to learn the skills required to entertain themselves when you’re busy. They need to know there are art supplies or games set aside for just that purpose. They need to know that you will pay attention to them when you hang up the phone, for example. If they get frustrated, they need to know how to calm themselves by singing a song, reciting a poem or blowing imaginary bubbles (see Help Children Blow Away Anger”). Your job is to teach these skills and practice them with your child.

“We’re proactively teaching or encouraging kids to develop skills that will make their lives and the lives of their parents more pleasant,” Christophersen says.

Problem-Solving Skills – Help older children develop problem-solving skills by modeling for them how you make decisions. And, if your own outcomes turn out to be less then you’d hoped, talk to your child about ways you could have done things differently.

“Parents often tell children what they did right or wrong, and less attention is given to the process by which a child reaches a particular course of action,” says Kazdin, author of several text books on behavior modification and adolescent conduct disorders. “It’s important to walk through the steps of a dialogue you usually have in your mind, to ask them, ‘How do you think we should handle that?’”

Simulate a scenario at the dinner table in which your spouse wants to go out for the evening and you want to stay home. Lay out alternative ways of responding and behaving, and then consider the consequences. Or ask your child if anyone got in trouble at school. Then ask what the student could have done differently to avoid being punished. These simple conversations impact the way your child will think and, ultimately, act, says Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Child Study Center.

The Series:

Part 1'Time In" Before 'Time Out'

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.