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How Modern Parents Use “Time-Out”

As I started writing this blog post, a thought came across my mind: “I wonder who invented Time-Out and what was the original purpose behind it?”

A few clicks and I arrived at Wikipedia!

Time-Out was actually a concept invented by Arthur Staats in 1958.  (Quick thought….50+ years seems like a very long time ago – two generations ago to be exact.)  His idea and work revolved around the principle of:

“…conditioning responses using extrinsic reinforcers.  It was a way to separate a child from an environment where inappropriate behavior has occurred, and intended to give an over-excited child time to calm down, thereby discouraging such behavior.”

I love the modern age we live in with information at my fingertips!  AND I am so thankful I did not have this information as easy to access when I started working with children.  

I may have believed this more punishing version of the Time-Out.  This version is sort of the home Dunce Cap approach for bad behavior.  

“Extrinsic Reinforcers” is a fancy way of saying “I, the adult, am going to enforce obedience by banishing you from an activity until you straighten up.”

When I started working with children, my natural response to negative behavior was Time-Out.  However MY Time-Out was structured more along the lines of a sports definition of time-out.  As I refer back to Wiki I find the definition, a perfect match!  Wiki defines a sports time-out as:

“A halt in play, allowing the coaches to communicate with the team, to determine a strategy or inspire morale.” 


So what does Modern Time-Out look like? What is the 2012 version vs. the 1958 version?

Let’s say I come home a little stressed from my day.  Okay…a lot stressed.  I start making dinner and my son says, “What are we having for dinner?”  I answer quickly, “Spaghetti.” He begins to go into a meltdown over spaghetti, which of course is not really about spaghetti.  He is just feeling the stress of the situation and mirroring back my own vibe.  But I go with spaghetti being the problem.

He is screaming, “I DON’T WANT SPAGHETTI!” And now I am ready to throw the spaghetti on the floor!  At least the dog wants spaghetti!  I know this is only going to get worse. 

So I decide to insist on a Time-Out.

Here’s the twist…. the Time-Out is for me.

I say to my darling little man, “Mom needs a take a minute.  I am angry and I need to take a minute for myself to feel better.  I am going to go to the bathroom to give myself a moment to remember what I love about me, you, and dinnertime as a family.  When I feel better, I will come out.  I know you will give me the time I need to feel happy again.  Thank you.”

I go to the bathroom and move myself from anger, to frustration, to hope, to knowing that this is not about spaghetti.  This is a moment for me to practice.  Practice feeling better.  Practice being the mom, the person, I am in my heart.

What am I giving my child?  Amazing gifts!

I am taking responsibility for my feelings, and modeling how to handle these moments in life.  I am freeing my child from the responsibility of behaving a certain way to make ME feel good.  

I am giving my child a chance to model a strategy for himself (which is how to handle spaghetti night and feel good about it) and I am inspiring morale!

In the end, it’s not about spaghetti.  It’s about the energy I brought to the conversation.  I was stressed, and my child just mirrored that right back to me.  

When I take a moment for myself, get in a better space, my son has the opportunity to do the same for himself, and spaghetti is no longer going to the dogs.

(Note:  The topic of punishment, behavior and Time-Outs is a rich one!  This is just one of many Time-Out examples.  Subscribe to Blog updates to get more techniques on working with your kids.)


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