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Column: Why you should never use timeouts on your kids

When our daughter was 5 and really pushing our buttons — emotionally speaking — my husband and I decided to take a one-day parenting class. (It turns out when you get two strong-willed people together, they create a strong-willed child. Who knew?)

Prior to the class, whenever Maxine behaved “inappropriately,” we would impose a short timeout. If that didn’t work, we’d take away a toy or privilege. Sometimes, a tantrum would ensue and more privileges would be lost, but these measures would always, eventually, bring an end to the offending behavior. Still, we felt drained and exhausted by the volume and frequency of these tantrums and had a hard time keeping our frustration under wraps. We hoped the class might give us some reassurance.

Instead, we got a bombshell.

Not 15 minutes into the eight-hour class, certified parenting instructor Linda Hatfield, who runs a Southern California program called Parenting from the Heart, explained that decades of neuroscience and social research have shown that timeouts and other methods of punishment are not only ineffective in steering the behavior of children but outright damaging.

But… but… but… I thought. We’ve been giving our kid timeouts for years.

I glanced around the room at the other parents, all of whom shared similar looks of shock on their faces. We’d all thought that spanking was the big no-no; turns out we were setting the bar very low.

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Originated by psychologist B.F. Skinner, timeouts are a form of light punishment in which a child is placed in a certain spot for a set period of time. Often, the child is made to stay “in timeout,” even if it requires restraint, and is ignored for the duration.

All punishments are ineffective, Hatfield went on to say, because the vast majority of kids don’t misbehave; they behave. They behave like kids. They don’t do things to be bad; they do things because those things are age-appropriate, or because they’re still learning, or because they’re not getting some basic need met. Maybe they are hungry or tired; maybe they are overstimulated or overwhelmed; maybe they need a hug. Or maybe they just don’t know how to process whatever emotion they’re feeling.

“All behavior,” Hatfield said, “is communication.”

Look, I know this is difficult for a lot of parents to contemplate or even believe. Some people swear by the timeout! But, at some point, we must accept that even though we all love our kids and want what’s best for them, parenting can’t be a strictly intuitive endeavor. Sometimes we need to listen, really listen, to the experts and the science — and both are telling us it’s time to quit punishing our children.

Two of the most well-known of these experts are Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, bestselling authors of “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind,” who have written extensively on this topic.

But there are others. Vanessa LaPointe is a British Columbian child psychologist and the author of “Discipline without Damage.” LaPointe works with children who have severe behavioral issues, and she told me that the first thing she asks parents is: What sort of discipline do you use?

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“Nine times out of 10,” she said, “the response has something to do with timeouts.”

Punishment in any form is harmful, LaPointe said, because “it takes the core need of the child… and uses it as a bargaining chip.” A child has a lot of core needs, she said, but one of the most vital is emotional attachment — the very thing parents sacrifice when they place their kids in timeouts.

“The more you use punishments to respond to behavior, the more you are actually escalating behavior and creating a reality where you have more behavior problems,” LaPointe said.

Are you using timeouts as punishment?

Now, some experts (and many, many parents) are almost sure to read this and say, “Hold on there, cowboy! Timeouts are fine as long as they are used properly.” So let’s quickly address that. If, during your “timeouts,” you are simply giving your child the opportunity to self-sooth (taking her out of the stressful situation, empathizing with her in a calm tone of voice, showing her how to take deep breaths, listening to her), that is fine! More than fine, even — because you’re not using timeouts as a punishment. Not sure whether your timeouts would qualify as “punishment”? See if any of the following statements apply to you.

  • I have threatened to put my child in timeout.
  • I have had to physically place my child in timeout.
  • I have set timers for my child’s timeouts.
  • I walk away from my child while she’s in timeout.
  • I refuse to interact with my child while he’s in timeout.
  • I have said “Timeout!” in an angry voice.
  • My child has a special timeout place, and she knows to go there when she is naughty.
  • Timeouts are generally a time when I feel frustrated to the point of anger/tears.

In fact, I had no trouble finding parenting experts exasperated by the whole pattern. Because, as Hatfield told me so long ago, when you yell or threaten or impose timeouts or deprive your children of things they enjoy, your children (1) feel resentful and (2) stop communicating. They stop telling you things you should know; they lie to escape punishment; their self-esteem suffers; they act out more. And those core needs? They’re still not being met.

Tracy Cutchlow, author of an excellent parenting book called “Zero to Five,” said punishments create kids who constantly look outside themselves for approval and that can have major consequences.

“Studies show that children who are punished are less able to internalize moral lessons,” Cutchlow said. “Internalizing is what allows kids to act morally when no one is looking. The kids fear getting in trouble, but instead of acting in a different way, they try not to get caught. It hurts your relationship with your child. And when they’re teens, that relationship is your main, maybe only, source of influence.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, can you imagine your spouse trying to make you a more patient person by taking away your coffee? (Or your wine?) It wouldn’t change your behavior — although you may fake it for a while out of sheer desperation! — and it would torpedo your relationship.

A few weeks ago, I read a story on Slate by parenting columnist Elissa Strauss: “A Child Development Expert Says Parents Should Never Punish Their Kids. Really?” In it, Strauss questions the legitimacy of (yet another) researcher showing (yet again) that timeouts are harmful to children. Dr. Alan Kazkin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, had been quoted in the Atlantic about tamping down tantrums through role playing and positive reinforcement, not timeouts.

Here’s Strauss:

“Kazdin’s theory is appealing. Who wouldn’t want to gain entry to this parenting Elysium where moms and dads need only administer encouraging observations and loving smiles to keep their children in check? Still, I’m having a hard time buying it. This is not only because of the whiff of too-good-be-true that his approach carries, nor my natural resistance to being told that I am doing things wrong, but because there are times when gentle punishments like time-outs feel absolutely appropriate. Also, in my experience, they work.”

Not only does Strauss name one of the most common excuses — “It works!” — for sticking to timeouts, but she does so in light of scientific evidence to the contrary. This is a parenting reporter (and a good one at that), and still, Strauss dismisses Kadzin’s work as “theory” because what Kadzin knows through science doesn’t jive with what Strauss “feels” to be true through experience. (Why did climate-change denial suddenly pop into my head? Weird.)

Parents love to do “what works.” And I admit that I’ve often said to my parent-friends, “Every child is different. Do what works for yours.” But this can’t be a blanket statement — especially when it comes to discipline. Just because something “works” to curb behavior in the moment doesn’t make it right or harmless. Yelling, threatening, berating, shaming, isolating and hitting are all incredibly effective in getting kids to obey your rules. That something “works” is one factor in deciding on discipline — but it’s one of many.

That daylong parenting class was a game-changer for me.

When it was over, and my husband and I returned home to Maxine, we no longer saw a defiant child who was trying to push our buttons. We saw a 5-year-old girl with a 5-year-old brain and a 5-year-old’s heart.

“We’re not going to do timeouts anymore,” we told Maxine. “We’re not going to take away your toys anymore, either. No more punishments.”

I will never, ever forget the wide smile of surprise and gratitude that spread across her little face.

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Tomorrow: “12 alternatives to timeouts when kids are at their worst.