Perhaps it's time to rethink the way a time-out is used. A time-out should be away from the aggravating situation, not the parent. Adults often take time-outs for themselves when they are angry and frustrated. They go for a walk, blow off steam at the racquetball court, or just stay in their rooms and listen to a soothing piece of music. The time-out is a useful skill to teach your children, but the way it is used is a big factor in achieving the results that you desire. If you want a great way to calm down children, focus them on their actions and restitution, and connect the parent-child relationship, try the 'child directed time-in.' Here are five differences between the two types:
Parent-Directed Time Out
- Used as a punishment.
- Send the child away for a certain number of minutes per year of age.
- Gives the child nothing to do and instructs the child to 'think' about his actions. Often, the child is really thinking about his anger, the unfairness of the situation, and/or how to retaliate.
- Parent requires the child to be alone.
- Parent decides the location, such as chair, bedroom, corner, or 'naughty step'.
Child-Directed Time In
- Used as a calm-down strategy
- Suggest the child take a time-in. Let the child decide when he's calm enough to start problem-solving the issue. Talk softly, rub shoulders, show how to breathe.
- Gives the child calm-down tools to suit his learning style, while he sorts out his feelings: (auditory learner: soothing music; visual learner: paper and markers; kinesthetic learner: lego, ball)
- Ask the child if he wishes you or another adult to stay and talk with him or be with him. An extraverted child may need a sounding board, whereas an introverted child may need solitude.
- Child chooses location such as bedroom, special fort, going for a walk, or even the basketball hoop.
I used to use parent directed time-outs. My son was constantly put in time-out and learned nothing. He threw blocks at the door and trashed his room while I was trying to keep the door closed and the other two children out. Neither of us were calming down. Neither of us were learning anything. Emotions were escalating. I was getting angrier; and he was too. Clearly, time-outs were not working. THe books said to keep at it and show him who was boss, but he was not relenting! After weeks of that behaviour, I gave it up. We never did time-outs again.
I would ask my daughter, when she was eight, what she wanted us to do when she was throwing tantrums and screaming in anger. I chose a time where we were both in a good space. We had been using time-out as a cool down strategy, whereby we would carry her to her room and shut the door. Her flailing resistance made it hard for me to keep calm. In anger, I probably carried her to her room rougher than I meant to. She would keep screaming and shouting. She told me that she wanted us to give her a hug, reassuring words, and not force her anywhere. The next time she was in a mood, I did as we had discussed. She calmed down much faster, and we were much more connected. Now, I notice that when I'm upset or one of the children are upset, she is the first person to get up and hug us!
Time in: stay cool - help calm - teach later.
Time outs are very much in vogue, promoted as a discipline tool to replace spanking. They are at the heart of programs like 1-2-3-Magic! (which is little more than a time out guide) and a staple on programs like Supernanny. However, there are many reasons why you might look for an alternative to time outs. Perhaps your child does not respond to them, perhaps they send your blood pressure sky-rocketing, perhaps you want your child to focus on what their behaviour does to others rather than on whether they are going to get punished. But even if you don't want to use punishments like time outs, it can be hard to work out what to do instead.
I thought it would be a good example (not to mention useful) to quote her explanation of how to do a time-in.
Arnall's book is unusual in that it is a hands-on practical book for parents that offers not only alternatives to punishments like time-outs, but also alternatives to approaches that involve manipulative rewards and praise. It took me a long time and a lot of internet research to discover this book because it doesn't retail in Australia. I ended up ordering it through Amazon. It is a decent size - over 400 pages long - because it does not just discuss the techniques, but also includes quite a lot of evidence-based discussion of the merits of various techniques. But even though the book is long, it is broken up into chapters and sub-chapters, and well indexed, so you can just jump in and get what you want. That said, I read it from start to finish and found it a fascinating read in its own right.
Of all the books I have, this one was a real stand-out for me. If you are going to get one book on discipline, get this one. You may not decide to use all these ideas, but it does really open your eyes to how a non-punitive, non-manipulative approach can work. It is not as simple as Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Discipline Solution (reviewed here), but it is much more thorough, so it offers a lot more options and a lot more thorough understanding of how to problem-solve parenting challenges. It has loads of evidence-based theory, practical toolkits arranged in handy charts, age by age chapters: eg. a chapter for 0-1 years (mostly about baby proofing and fostering attachment), 1-2 years ('this is the time for damage control, not moral teaching'), 3-5 years (natural consequences, modelling, problem solving), 6-12 years, and 13-19 years. For each age group it summarises physical, psychosocial, and cognitive milestones. It provides a list not only of helpful parenting behaviours, but unhelpful behaviours that can unwittingly trigger the behaviours you are trying to discipline your child out of, discussions of typical issues and practical approaches for dealing with them.
There are also chapters on different temperaments and learning styles, a chapter specifically on dealing with new technologies like the internet and mobile phones (with the philosophy 'educate: not ban'), a chapter entitled 'good parents feel angry: separate your anger from your discipline' and a really good discussion on approaching discipline when you and your partner may have different ideas.
Arnall raised five children to adulthood using these methods, so she has had a lot of practical experience ironing out the crinkles and looking at the long-term effect of the methods on her children, their behaviour, and her relationship with them. She has worked extensively as a parent-educator teaching these techniques.
The greatest strength of Arnall's approach is that it really focuses on building self-discipline rather than externally imposed discipline.
Bear with me here on a tangent that will become relevant...
Once upon a time I used to write and direct plays - for fun, nothing professional - and at that time I took some short courses in directing. Before I took those courses I thought you directed people by saying: stand here, do this, speak up, count to five before you respond etc. That's obviously how you direct, right?
But when I took those courses, I realised that what seemed so obvious missed the fundamental point that a great actor does so much more than remember a list of commands. A great actor feels the character, expresses the character in their body, expresses shades of meaning in their voice and the slightest gesture. It only happens by actors being given the opportunity to explore and experiment with their role. Being told what to do shuts down that creative opportunity, and the performances that result tend to be wooden, stereotypical, and unsubtle. The actors find something more meaningful in theatre than just worrying about the applause if they are focused on the creative journey rather than whether their performance is 'right'.
The basic point is this: it is not you as the director who has to get up on stage and perform. Once they step out there in front of the audience, you cannot keep yelling out commands. You cannot tell them to stop and do the scene again. The actor themselves has to have the skills to improvise when someone forgets a line, to respond to the nuances of the performances of the other actors, and to make subtle adjustments for the audience's reaction. You cannot do it for them.
And this is something I always have in the back of my mind as a parent. You cannot live your child's life for them. You cannot follow them every second of the day. You cannot be watching over her shoulder when your teenager sneaks off to a party. You cannot make her be self-confident by demanding it. You cannot force your twenty-five year old to take any notice of anything you say whatsoever.
Working with actors to find the character in themselves is much more time intensive. It took about twice as many rehearsals to use the 'exploration' method than the 'point and command' method. But 'point and command' relies on your actor already having the necessary skills to give a good performance, whereas the 'exploration' method can take result in a brilliant performance from an actor who was uncertain or unskilled to start with. The 'exploration' method can completely transform the kind of performance or mannerisms of an actor into a new approach, whereas the 'point and command' method will only make small refinements to what the actor is already offering.
The sad thing is that when you direct with a 'point and command' method, you never see and so never realise what performances were actually possible from the actors. You don't realise that the actor could often come up with something better than your own suggestion. When an actor cannot manage to give you the performance you imagine they ought to give, you are at a loss to do anything except yell or throw your hands up in despair.
The 'point and command' style of directing has much in common with the 'punish and reward' style of discipline. It can produce more swift results, particularly if the child is talented and the expectations are realistic, but it also teaches the child to rely on their parents rather than their own conscience, and to do what they can get away with rather than to problem-solve and be empathetic.
Arnall's approach is about using every opportunity for internal skill-building that will serve your child well when you are not around to tell them what to do. As illustrated in the time-in example, it is not about allowing your child to run riot - it is about using boundary-setting as an opportunity to build a connection, not drive a wedge.