After his daughter was born, Arthur Staats naturally began thinking about his role as a parent. How would he encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior as Jennifer grew up? He didn’t like spanking. So what was a psychology professor and behaviorist in 1960 to do?
Or so the family story goes.
“My brother jokes that I was so naughty that my dad had to invent that,” Jennifer Kelley, now a child psychiatrist and grandmother, said in a phone interview. For the record, she added, “I’m sure I was an angel.”
Today, the merits of timeout are hotly debated. Some argue it is harmful, provoking feelings of isolation, abandonment and anxiety while doing little to teach self-regulation. Others maintain the discipline is effective and not only helps a child acquire self-control but also gives parents the opportunity to cool off and reduces yelling or physical abuse. Staats, now 95 and with two adult children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, stands by his work from the early 1960s.
"TYM-OUT" proclaims his license plate.
The system is so common, says Thomas Phelan, a clinical psychologist and author of books on child discipline, that it is like asking who invented facial tissues. "Timeout preceded the 'invention' of it," said Phelan, author of "1-2-3 Magic." An 1894 watercolor by Swedish artist Carl Larsson of an unhappy little boy sitting quietly on a chair is sometimes used to make the point that the concept has been around longer than we may think.
But Staats is credited with coining the term. Jennifer, her brother Peter and their father’s protege and colleague Karl Minke say he codified the discipline, using it along with positive reinforcement and strategies he developed in his work as a behaviorist.
Speaking from his home in Hawaii, where until retirement he was a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, Staats described his views of family relationships and how timeout should work.
Parents, he said, are a “companion, helper or trainer,” and not an authoritarian “ruler of the household” using spanking for enforcement and punishment.
Spanking was common at the time, and remains so today, although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it, citing evidence it increases aggression and harms development in young children.
“I knew that [spanking] was a terrible idea,” Staats said, “and not a good effect on the parent-child relationship.”
Jennifer Kelley was Staats’s first child and he found in his daughter the perfect subject. He coached her to speak, teaching her to say sounds before the age of 1 that most children do not master until toddlerhood. He taught her to read before the age of 3, motivating her with a machine he built that doled out prizes that could be traded for toys. This research in reward systems and learning, and his contention that IQ was not fixed but could increase with training, occupied most of Staats’s work.
And when it came to behavior, his task was to teach his child that certain behaviors were inappropriate, he said, while preserving the feeling that the parent was still the helper.
Imagine a child wants a cookie, and the parent says no. “The child cries and has a tantrum when it cannot get what it wants,” he said. To discourage the behavior, the parent removes the child from the environment, taking them to an unexciting part of the room for a short period of time, which the child will experience as negative, Staats said.
“But it’s mild. Very mild,” he added. And it is important that the parent also is removed enough from the situation so that negative feelings do not build up, he said.
Today, some parents think they should increase the length of a timeout by one minute for each year of a child’s age. Staats believes this is a “very bad practice.” When a child stops the undesirable behavior, the timeout should end. The goal is to no longer need to send the child to timeout. A parent can give a warning, “If you continue to do that, you will have a timeout,” Staats said.
Kelley pointed out another misinterpretation.
“A lot of people go wrong with timeout when they inadvertently give attention to undesirable behaviors,” she said. Do not get into a back-and-forth conversation about what the child did wrong or revisit the behavior immediately after, Kelley said.
“Kids know exactly what they did wrong and you don’t really have to explain it to them.”
Another important part of her father’s strategy, she said, was paying attention to desirable behavior. Reinforcing good behavior with praise and attention is “key,” she said.
Staats rewarded good behavior with a lot of praise, saying “very good,” in a nurturing and positive voice, his daughter said. To hold attention and teach language and reading skills, he used tangible reinforcements.
Film footage on YouTube shows him in action, rewarding his then-preschool son with the raisin treats and marbles that could be traded for toys. His goal was not to get children to the head of their preschool class, but to show that IQ could be built on a set, or repertoire, of teachable skills, and that it was not fixed, as some believed.
The reward system allowed him to work with children for half-hour sessions, twice as long as behaviorists had previously done, said Minke, who, having worked in the professor’s rat lab, was pleased when his task was to “go out and buy the toys.”
Those child-rearing methods worked for her, Kelley said. “I struck the lottery. I was very fortunate,” she replies when she is asked what it was like growing up with a behaviorist father and her psychologist mother, Carolyn.
In many ways, Staats was an outlier in his field of behaviorism prominent in the 1960s, Minke said. While radical behaviorism popularized by B.F. Skinner largely put emphasis on observable behavior, Staats took a broader view, placing importance on “thinking and what goes on internally,” and contributing to what ultimately became the seeds of cognitive behavioral therapy, Minke said.
Considering the focus of psychology in the early 1960s, it’s credible that someone like Staats would explore the timeout strategy, said Chuck Kalish, science director for the Society for Research in Child Development.
“The rationale for timeout, the idea of negative reinforcement, removing the child from the environment that is reinforcing bad behavior and putting them in a different environment where they are not getting rewarded for that bad behavior, that logic is very characteristic of the behaviorist period of American science,” Kalish said.
Today’s parents may think that it’s better to talk their child out of a behavior than to remove them to a timeout, said Phelan, but trying to reason with children in the heat of the moment is not always a positive action. His 1-2-3 Magic system advocates numeric warnings for bad behavior, positive reinforcement for good behavior and a strong bond between parent and child.
“We live in a society with the mantra: more communication is better. And although it has some truth in it, the reality is that the more you talk to [children] the more you irritate them and the less likely you make them cooperate,” he said.
The danger, too, is a pattern he observed in his work called “talk, persuade, argue, scream and finally hit.”
Cheryl McNeil, a professor of clinical child psychology at West Virginia University, has studied timeout techniques with families and young children, many expelled from day-care programs for yelling at teachers, pushing peers, and hitting and biting. It is with this population of preschool-aged children that the science of timeout has been tested and developed, she said.
When families and children are trained in the proper techniques for timeout — learning a system that involves creating a positive “time-in” environment of parent-child interaction, explaining the rules of timeout in advance, using warning statements and consistent follow-through — children show great success, she said.
“It’s amazing if it’s done correctly and sets the child up for success,” she said. “And it’s a big flop if it’s done without training and ineffectively. The parent has reinforced escalation in the child and makes the situation worse.”
One effort to help parents better understand the best ways to use timeout is through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has tips and videos, she said
There is value in timeout for young children, Kalish said, because they have yet to develop executive function and have trouble internalizing their behavior, especially when reacting to their environment.
“All of us have trouble regulating our behavior from time to time,” he said, “and all of us should walk away and cool off. That’s timeout.”