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Time outs are by far the most popular parenting technique, but are they productive or cruel? What can you do instead if you don't want to use time outs?

We've all, by now, heard of so-called "time outs" — a parenting technique in which younger children are placed in a more isolated spot for a period of time to reflect on wrongdoing and then hopefully learn not to do it again. Supernanny may have popularized them as "naughty corners" or "naughty steps", in which a child spends one minute for every year of their age, but our own parents practiced a version of time outs when they sent us to our rooms. 

More recently, however, there's been more and more rumbling about the possibility that time outs may actually be cruel. Time outs kind of tell them, after all, that we don't want our kids — that they physically need to separate themselves from family life — when they're not behaving "nicely". And bad behavior can be caused by a myriad of things, being stressed, tired, or hungry among them.

So, let's have it. Are time outs a useful and productive parenting tool, or should you banish it from your box of tricks?

Some interesting facts about time out as a parenting technique

Research shows that time out is the most commonly used way to discipline young children, both being parents' number one choice and a recommendation primary healthcare providers often give. There's plenty of scientific evidence to back the idea that it works up — time outs have been revealed to indeed reduce whatever is deemed "misbehavior" in young children.

Despite this, parents who use it often report that it's not yielding the desired effects. Researchers have discovered that this is because parents don't go about time outs in the way that is most effective. Effective time outs include:

  • Starting time outs right away when your child behaves in a way you don't want to see — if they've already been made aware that they can't do a certain thing, warn once and then place your child in time out immediately. 
  • The child shouldn't be able to do anything but reflect (or stew, as the case may be) while in time out — do not, for instance, let them watch TV or play on their tablet while they are supposedly in time out. 
  • Time outs should have a set time and shouldn't come to an end because your child engages in more misbehavior and you give in. 
  • Being consistent. Your child should know what will land them in time out, and if you use time outs, those things should always result in time out. 

Why do some people oppose time outs? Should you stop using them?

Some people, including researchers, have criticized time outs on the ground that they:

  • Are often overused, meaning they're an easy tool that sadly stops some parents from opting for other methods, like simply having a chat. 
  • Make children feel isolated and punished rather than wanting to please you as a parent, or doing the right thing. 
  • Are used because parents are frustrated, rather than for the benefit of the child. 
  • Are often inconistently applied. 
  • Offer a one-size-fits-all approach, where children are individuals who don't actually fit into neat boxes. 
Studies have generally shown time out in a positive light, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics endorses them. The nay-sayers have some points, however, and time outs shouldn't be used to shame or humiliate children. When used in a "quiet place to reflect" way rather than a "we don't want you until you can do as you're told" way, time outs can be helpful. 

Should you personally use them? As an alternative to spanking, time outs are absolutely wonderful — since corporal punishments have been shown to have numerous negative effects on emotional wellbeing, as well as actually being ineffective. If you can get by without time outs and a nice chat about how to behave and how not to, or a "time in", in which you sit with your child (maybe actually holding them) until they calm down, work for you, go for it. These less punitive approaches can set you up for a different, and perhaps more positive, relationship with your child or children, especially if you yourself actually feel uncomfortable using time outs.

So, can you parent without time outs?

Sure. You can parent without time outs, without spanking, without shaming, and actually mostly without "punishment" at all. This starts with fostering a positive relationship in which your (young) child wants to please you and with creating the kind of life where they feel their needs are met. Still, kids will do stuff you don't just dislike, but that is bad for them and other people around them, too. 

Instead of time outs, you could:

  • Observe your young child and discover patterns to their behavior and adjust your routine accordingly. Are they tired, hungry, or overwhelmed when they act out? Are they simply bored? Try to adjust your routines in a way that means your child won't be tired or hungry when you go out in public, and as for boredom, agree on some things your child can do at home when they're bored. 
  • Set your child up with clear expectations before an event. Children who know what's about to happen are less likely to act out. This could look like "Please remember to take turns on the slide; don't push other kids," like "We're about to go to Target now, but I can't buy you those stuffed animals I know you'll want, OK? We'll get a tasty meal, though!," or like, "If you eat these peas and that chicken, you can have desert. Please don't ask for desert until you're done with that. Healthy eatinfg is important."
  • Give your child some control over their life. Instead of laying out what they'll be wearing, ask them if they want this or that outfit. Ask if they'd like your help tidying up their toys before of after dinner. 
  • Talk about behavior when you're not in the thick of it. This is when emotions run highest. This could look like, "Hey, you know I really need you to hold my hand when we're crossing the road, because I want to keep you safe," or "I've noticed you get overwhelmed when your cousin comes around. What do you think we can do to make sure you don't feel angry when he's here?" (Then suggest, for instance, that your child come to you if they feel like having a tantrum, or that they go color by themselves for 10 mionutes.)
  • Sit with your child when they need to calm down, rather than sending them away. This is a time in rather than a time out. Some parents think this shows the child that you don't reject them when they're stressed. 
At the end of the day, a "hey, you know that's not cool, don't do that" can be quite effective, too. We all have to work out what's right for our family, and what seems to be effective for our particular kids, ourselves. Time outs most definitely aren't the worst discipline technique to use, but if you want to parent without them, you absolutely can. 

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