Do timeouts work in disciplining children?


(Julia Rothman for the Washington Post )

Many parents use timeouts to deal with undesirable behavior in children younger than 5. It goes like this: Child breaks rule. Parent puts child in an isolated location (the naughty chair) and ignores him for one minute per year of age, while the child considers his behavior. When time’s up on the timeout, parent and child discuss the problem behavior, hug and move on.

Sounds simple, right? Too bad experts say it doesn’t really work.

“You’re sending the kid into a room, and the message is, ‘I don’t approve of who you are in this moment when you made a mistake, so I want you away from me,’” said Vicki Hoefle, the author of “Duct Tape Parenting.”

It’s far better, Hoefle said, to talk to your child about her behavior in the moment than to banish her and her feel guilty.

“You’re missing an opportunity to sit down and say to your kids, ‘How well did that work for you?’” Hoefle said. “That self-assessment is far more important to a kid’s mental and emotional health than a prescribed when-you-break-rules-get-sent-away.”

Young children also are not developmentally able to contemplate what they have done wrong, said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and parenting coach in the District, so the time in isolation is wasted. Older preschoolers, in particular, are unwilling to sit in timeout, she said.

“They get up and now here you are, a grown woman chasing a 4-year-old around the house, grabbing her and forcing her on to a step,” Leahy said. “Whatever infraction garnered the punishment is forgotten and now you’re in a full physical struggle to learn a lesson that they’re not cognitively able to learn.”

Deborah Sendek, the program director for the Center for Effective Discipline, says timeouts can work if used correctly and sparingly, but a better approach is to communicate expectations to your children and have natural consequences when they break the rules (for example, you leave your bike outside overnight, you lose your bike for a week).

“What works better is discipline, which is teaching,” Sendek said. “It’s more that communication about what needs to happen, why their behavior is inappropriate, and what should happen instead.”

Mari-Jane Williams

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