Time Out Does Not Mean Go Away

Attachment parenting  has important things to say. Dr. Spock was the guru of his day. Spare the rod and spoil the child was a guiding principle in its time. The wise women of the tribal villages  have a wellspring of knowledge to share about mothering.

We have been guided by the words around us in the way we raise up our children because we need to be. We have this precious cargo that we are supposed to carry to a very far off time and place, getting it there in one piece, in a transformed way from the one in which it was entrusted to us. And we don’t really have the first idea how to do that. The journey is perilous. There are so many pitfalls along the way. Think Lord of the Rings here folks. You’re the Hobbit and the kid is the ring. It’s a nightmare really, punctuated by moments of pure and uplifting joy. This is your epic journey. Your magnum opus. You do not want to eff it up.

I have nearly delivered my rings. One, technically, has been delivered since she is an adult and lives away from me most of the time. The second is but mere months from his drop into the molten fires of adulthood, where my quest to raise him well will have mostly ended. They both love me. Not just the obligatory and primal mother-child love that often stands even when the  journey together has been fraught with tension and disappointments, but the easy kind of love that is filled with like. If their weekly total of text, email, and phone or chat conversations is any indication, I rocked this gig.

And I timed them out. Fairly often, in fact. (And they slept in cribs down the hall but don’t hate me).

photo credit: terrific mentors.com

I’m jangled by the current popular position that timing a child out for a misbehaviour is a rejection of the child himself and a failure of emotional engagement and connection. Perhaps it’s what the term conjures for some: a furious, enraged parent who yells with exasperation to get out of her sight, “go, just go!” and the child scurries off to their room for some indefinite period of time with no resolution of the problem at hand.

In our home, and as it should be, timeout was not angry. Well, I might have been angry but I was being a grown up unless I was taking one myself. It was agreed upon, in the sense that there was no surprise. The behaviour that would result in timeout was made clear. For example, if you hit, you will sit out. Sometimes children  do not yet have the developmental ability to reason abstractly, to consider all possible options before acting, to have insight, or to self-regulate with intention. Hence, if the child hit and that was the agreed upon rule, he was calmly and firmly told that he’d hit and told to sit. It was not arbitrary, with me summarily dispensing timeouts for every mild annoyance throughout the day. We used it judiciously and predictably. It taught cause and effect. Our timeout spot was on the bottom step of the landing – an out-of-the-way place but still within the main level of the house where supervision was possible. Bedrooms were never used for timeout.  Timeout lasted no longer than a few minutes, and then until calm.  And nobody talked to them while they were in timeout. It was  time…out. Out of the flow of the house. Out of the exciting things that happened during time in.  No reprimands, lectures, rants, deals –  just silence. Oh, it could get long and it sometimes did. There were tears, and screaming, and stomping, threats to never come out. There were some unhappy scenes. But we could handle unpleasant feelings, and wait calmly until the anger was processed and calm restored. We could stand firm and sure until  it was done  and then it was over, and that child was welcomed back. To the joys and engagement and praise and cuddles and laughter and love that was time in.

Lots of life is certainly about negotiation, compromise, mutual understanding, acceptance, empathy, and belonging. But there are some rules that are non-negotiable and some consequences just need to be accepted. In the real world, as adults, there is some behaviour that results in you being put in “timeout”  from other people, and even from the community at large. That’s truth. I guess I wanted my kids to learn that, just like I wanted them to learn to navigate so many of the other truths they would find when I dropped them into the fires of adulthood, praying that I had been steadfast and true in my journey to deliver them whole and ready.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the words around you telling you what harm will come to your child from the parenting choices you might make?


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19 Responses to Time Out Does Not Mean Go Away

  1. Sharon Desserud says:

    Well said Mary. Society, well meaning ‘experts’ are stripping parents of effective means of teaching our children right from wrong. There is unending reasoning, negotiating, placating children who are not yet old enough to use reasoning to be involved in the dialogue. Parents are giving children the idea that every decision is negotiable and that children should have an equal say in all decisions made in the family. Many children are growing up without respect for adults. Time out is an effective way to remove positive attention for unwanted behaviour so is not punitive in the way yelling, spanking, losing your own temper would be.
    I made many mistakes raising my girls but I believe they learned something about right and wrong without ruining them completely with timeout

    • M says:

      Thanks Sharon. I do think we need to be very careful about what we expect from youngsters who have not even developed the language and reasoning skills to benefit from strategies that are very appropriate to children who have these skills. I think we risk doing things that make us feel that we have been more reasonable and have “had a good talk”. I’m a talker – shocking, I know. But I talked very little to my kids when they were misbehaving. Then I gave instructions and consequences as necessary. There was lots of other time for excellent talk. People aren’t at their best when they are upset. Any of us. And the issue of respect for authority and power structures is another whole kettle of fish. Thanks for reading and discussing. And I am quite sure you did not ruin your girls with timeout any more than I ruined my kids.

  2. Katja says:

    Every time you get right to the heart of it. I can’t say my time outs are always as calm or well thought out as yours were, but I work towards that. Thank you for so eloquently wording what I fell about the finger wagging.

  3. Agatha Ryan says:

    I do remeber being around at some of those time outs
    They sure didn’t harm your two
    They turned out to be responsible young adults
    A job well done of parenting

  4. Laura says:

    We timeout. It is pretty much the only consequence my child understands. We don’t do it often. Most days don’t have them. It is a bad day if there are more than one.

    We do similar things. We do display our disappointment in him as we put him in timeout and then we mostly don’t talk with him during (within reason. He is 2. We also don’t shut him out and ignore him. As he gets older I am sure it will look a lot more like you wrote about). And when it is done, and calm, we always resolve. We talk about what happened and what we should do instead, and then we hug.

    I find it silly that some segments of society think we will hurt our children by giving them timeouts. You know what I think will hurt our children more? Not learning discipline.

    • M says:

      You are a wonderful mother Laura. At two, no child can reason when upset, or be very planful about his behaviour. Immediate, firm, and clear consequences that may include the occasional timeout seem reasonable to me. I’m glad you are thinking intentionally about what you want your kids to learn because that is the point of all we do, whatever strategies we use.

  5. Sharon says:

    I love hearing from moms who’ve been there and done it. I sometimes get overwhelmed and worry I’m completely messing them up so to see someone who is near the end of her journey (but not really, because they’ll always be our kids) gives me hope :)

    • M says:

      Sharon, I’m so glad. I used to worry too. Some days I felt sure I should save all the money I found in pockets and keep it as a therapy fund to undo all the damage I was probably doing…all that angst was unnecessary, if an indication of wanting to do a good job and understanding its importance. As do you.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!! It expresses so much of what I’ve been feeling for years. We also use a “time out” and in an almost identical fashion to what you’ve described here.

  7. Pam @writewrds says:

    I agree, Mary.
    A time-out allows the child time to process, to recognize boundaries and expectations are real, and to understand there are consequences for behavior. That’s life, right? We certainly did time-outs — with no regrets. : )

    • M says:

      As another mother who is now seeing the outcome of the choices you made when parenting your young children, it’s nice to compare a little. One wonders if one is an anomaly of course so it’s good to share.

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  9. Daniela says:

    This great Mary, I agree, timeout worked for my oldest. I always let him make the choice continue and go to time out or stop. I our kids have no consequence, how will they learn? Great post!

  10. What a very thoughtful article. I could write volumes in response but will try to be as brief as possible!

    I used timeouts, both long and short and as my girls got older those might have turned into ‘grounded.’ Heck, I might have even ‘popped’ them on the rear occasionally for some emphasis (not to be confused with someone’s notion of a real spanking; my kids were never turned over a knee and hit repeatedly). So when I read of all of the ‘new’ ways to parent I wonder if I got it wrong.

    I could talk about how my girls grew into hard working, decent adults. And they have. Both finished college and have gone on to careers that allow them to support themselves comfortably without relying on me to continue to support them. That is good.

    Yet, they are also both far too disrespectful of me to not have me wonder WTF??? Unfortunately I’ve got a mean, resentful ex in the picture and they’ve been taught for most of their lives that it’s OK to be rude and disrespectful to me and an adult relationship with him has them turning their backs on me as if I was somehow the one that abandoned them when they were little girls. That’s hard. So is the notion both have taken on that now I was the mean mom. That’s even harder. Yes, I was the only parent who ever made them do household chores or homework or put them in timeouts…that those tasks have been turned into visions of being treated badly by me is nothing short of amazing but then…they have some maturing to do and I feel confident that one day they will have one of those illuminating moments, you know, probably becoming parents themselves, that will shed some light on reality!

    Still I know this. They have both graduated from college and have good jobs. They are a functioning part of society and treat those in the world around them with care and grace and are good friends. They’ve never had issues with drugs or alcohol and while there might have been some lapses in college for the youngest , they show respect for themselves in relationships with men and are not taken advantage of.

    Somewhere in all of that I see the results of that mothering I worked so hard at and right now I hold onto that while dealing with their current hurtful behavior. I felt compelled to share this not as sympathy mongering but maybe to say that no matter how hard we work at it…things happen. Outside influences do influence. We can try any type of ‘parenting’ we want and the outcome might not be what we had hoped…but we have to take stock of those efforts and know, at least I do, that at the end of the day, it was a job well done.

    • M says:

      Yes, I think it’s true. We have to remember that we are not the only influence in the lives of our children. We can only do what we can do – and that has to be enough.

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