The Debate Over Using Time-Outs

Properly Using Time-Outs

Whether to use time-outs with children or not has become nearly as polarizing as whether to vaccinate children, letting babies cry-it-out, and spanking.

If you admit to using time-outs with children on social media you will be criticized for rejecting toddlers and preschoolers at the time they need your attention the most — when they misbehave.

Ironically, in researching this article I have found that supporters and critics of time-outs actually seem to agree that when misused as punishment, time-outs are ineffective and even harmful. And the real problem is there a lot of parents and caregivers using time-outs inappropriately.

Time-outs were made popular in the 1960s by psychological behaviorist Arthur W. Staats who created the term time-out as an alternative to corporal punishment. Since then, using time-outs have been the most popular discipline approach used by parents and schools for decades.

But in 2014, Time Magazine published an article, ‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child by doctors Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, that explains in most cases time-outs are misused as punitive, ineffective, and leave children angrier than they were before being disciplined.

Soon after the article was published, the doctors clarified that the Time editors misconstrued their theories and used an inappropriate article title. Siegel and Bryson cleared up the confusion explaining that they aren’t opposed to using time-outs when used properly. The doctors have a problem that so many parents and caregivers exploit time-outs as punishment. The doctors actually support using time-outs as they were intended — keeping them brief, using them infrequently, and as a time for the child to reflect and to calm down. Their main goal (as described in their book No-Drama Discipline) is to help kids feel more loved and nurtured — rather than punished, rejected, and isolated — even when they have misbehaved.

The argument against the use of time-outs is compelling. By isolating children in time-outs, kids may feel rejected, embarrassed, and punished — rather than loved and understood. Little ones aren’t learning to express their feelings and emotions when banished to a corner. Perhaps abandoning children at a time of emotional crisis even increases power struggles.

For example, author Janet Lansbury explains in her book No Bad Kids that putting a child in a time-out is the exact opposite of what the child needs. Lansbury follows Magda Gerber’s Resources for Infant Educators (RIE) principles. She teaches that defiance, aggression, and other limit pushing behaviors are children’s way of telling adults their self-control has left the building and they need to depend on us. She writes, “This can only happen when we’re tuned in, not turning them away in anger and judgement.”

Linda Hatfield, co-founder of Parenting from the Heart with her husband insists that all punishments are ineffective. Hatfield teaches that the vast majority of kids don’t misbehave. They behave like kids. Children don’t do bad things but do things because they are acting age-appropriate, because they are still learning, or because they aren’t getting some basic need met. Parenting from the Heart shows that since children don’t have the vocabulary or skills to communicate effectively yet, all of children’s behaviors are communication.

In the book Zero to Five, Tracy Cutchlow says punishment makes kids suffer to teach them a lesson. But, she exposed that provocative titles of articles using her theories have been misleading. On her blog she explains that time-outs are harmful when used as punishment, but effective when used to calm down.

The American Academy of Pediatricians, (AAP) still does recommend using time-outs with children as young as 9 months that throw tantrums, throw out of anger, hit, kick, bite, or spit.

The AAP describes that time-outs are not meant to punish or socially isolate but instead to guide and teach children. The goal of time-outs are to briefly remove children from a difficult situation to teach them how to self-calm.

Time-outs works best when: caregivers use it for one or two behaviors at a time and there is a lot of “time-in.” The AAP time-out looks very different to the punishment many parents and caregivers have been using inappropriately.

Here are the AAP Guidelines to Using Time-Outs:


Time-in occurs when the child is the center of your attention! Teach children that picking up a book or a toy results in reading and snuggles or play time together (time- in). If hitting results in time-out, but picking up a book results in time-in, the child will learn to stop hitting and to start picking up a book instead.

Calm Down:

Time-out teaches children to calm down. It helps them to remain in control despite strong emotions.

Step One:

• When the child is hitting, kicking,spitting, or losing control, pick him up but look away so he knows this is not a hug.
• Gently hold him in your lap.
• Sit until he becomes quiet and still. At first, it may just be a brief moment.
• As soon as he is quiet and still, time-out is over. He is allowed off your lap.

Over time, the child will learn that time- out is shorter if he is simply quiet and still. Once the child is able to calm himself quickly and consistently in your lap, it is time for step two.

Step Two:

• Have the child sit by herself in a chair.
• You can put your hand on her lap or shoulder, but look away.
• Have the child sit there until she is quiet and still.
• As soon as she is quiet and still, time-out is over.

The AAP recommends once the child is able put himself in the chair and quickly calm himself, then you can begin to use a timer. Time-out should last about one minute per year of age. Only try this when the child understands that time-out means being quiet and still.

The AAP points out that as children age, time-outs may work because, when in time-out, children are being ignored. No child likes that! This is especially true if they know what time-ins feels like.

Experts that promote using time-outs and those that warn against it all agree that the best way to get children to behave properly is to set clear and realistic expectations that are developmentally appropriate, model proper behavior, praise and reward good behavior, and to remain calm, cool, and collected when using discipline strategies to guide and teach children rather than punishing them.

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