The Problem With Time-Out

When I opened the door, Jonathan’s face was red and beaded with sweat. But the psych professor I had consulted said the storage room was perfect for banishing the four-year-old miscreant so he could “think” about his behavior.

Before tossing Jonathan back out to the ” lambs” in my preschool class, I gave him a pep talk about being “good.”

And he was. Until he could no longer contain his anger, or frustration, or whatever made him act out.

I had never met a child who wanted to inflict pain on others, but Jonathan was a hitter, a pusher, and an angry arm-grabber. And he was a big problem in my preschool class that year. Sometimes it seemed as though the frustration inside his clenched muscles was just bursting to find a way out, a vent in a geyser. He often struck when I wasn’t looking.

And then there were his victims. They’d scrape themselves up off the ground scraping a bloody elbow, or run to show me a scratched forearm.  “Look what Jonathan did!” they’d wail, tears running down their cheeks

Little Jonathan was a handsome child. Solidly built with a round face that flushed easily. His mother dressed him in nice clothing, always a color coordinated outfit. I tried reasoning with him. “It hurts when you hit, Jonathan. You wouldn’t like it if people hit you!”

“I won’t do it again,” he promised, his eyes full of good intention. But Jonathan could not keep from erupting any more than Old Faithful.

Home visitations were part of my duties at the federally subsidized preschool, and when the time came, I made an appointment with Jonathan’s mother. They lived in a pleasant development of newly built, low-income homes. But something bothered me. Despite being spotless and nicely decorated, I found no evidence that a child lived and played there.

Jonathan’s mother was a thin woman in her mid-late thirties, and Jonathan her only child. Since she wasn’t one of the parents who did “in-kind,” volunteering in the classroom, I really didn’t know her. On that day she wore a white blouse and neat Capri pants, but on other occasions I had seen her dressed professionally, her dark shoulder-length hair perfectly styled. She seemed ill-at ease with me in her living room, reserved. I never saw her laugh. Jonathan’s father was not in the picture, as was the case with several children in my class.

I explained that Jonathan was a bright boy but had trouble controlling his behavior. He hit the other children. She had nothing to say. No shock or dismay. She’d heard it all before.

His day started early and ended late. He came to school on the bus, participated in the free breakfast program, and then stayed for after-school care – a long day for a preschooler – and so I suggested she try to have breakfast with him a few times a week so he could spend more time with her. Maybe that would help, I said.

She only listened.

The following week I got a call from the school director. He wanted to see me.

How dare I suggest that a mother spend more time with her child, he raged. That’s not my business. She couldn’t possibly give him breakfast.  She had to go to work.

The school director offered no solution. He was not a very bright man.

And so I consulted a psychologist I knew from the local university.

“Time-out,” he said. “Whenever he misbehaves, put him in isolation for five minutes.”

I was willing to try anything. But wait, Jonathan needed MORE attention, not less.

Be consistent, the psychologist said.

It wasn’t easy to catch the kid in the act.

It was one of those preschools where children are supposed to “produce” cute cut-and-paste projects. My teacher aide kept busy taping their daily out-put to the walls and packaging folders to go home.  I disagreed with these ideas, however. Even in my preparenting days, I knew young children needed to be engaged in imaginative play. They needed movement and singing. Most of all, they didn’t need to spend all day in a “child development center.”

One hot afternoon,  I decided to take a rest during  “nap” time. I was pregnant with our first child. To make sure Jonathan would not attack anyone, I pushed my cot  next to his.

He fidgeted and tossed and so I put my hand on his back. Before long, our breathing synchronized and he fell asleep. A peaceful feeling came over me.

This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. Children need adults to calm them. It’s a hormone called oxytocin that creates the effect.

Jonathan awoke refreshed and relaxed. He didn’t stop hitting, but I quit sending him to time-out. Time-out was only teaching him that no one really wanted him, that no adult could handle his behavior.

I wondered what his mother would say if I told her about my discovery. I wanted to say, “If you will only touch Jonathan, lie down with him at night maybe, and place your hand on his back, he will relax. He will know he’s worth more than being yelled at. And he will become a different little boy.”

But I didn’t say anything. I took maternity leave shortly after and never went back. My experiences at that preschool changed me. I knew how I didn’t want to raise my children.

I still had much to learn.

While researching time-out recently, I discovered the website of child rearing therapist Peter Haiman, Ph.D, It seems Haiman has been speaking out against the practice for a long time, and for reasons that make a whole lot of sense.

In his 1998 article,  “The Case Against Time Out,”  Haiman writes, “A serious cost of being given time-out in childhood is the lesson that one should bottle up uncomfortable emotions. Upset in time-out and unable to express distressing feelings, youngsters desperately need to stop the painful feelings going on inside them. To cope, children learn to ignore and/or distract themselves from the energy of their hurt and angry feelings. Thus, children learn to repress their painful feelings. In the process, nervous habits can emerge, including thumb sucking, fingernail biting, hair pulling, skin scratching, tugging at clothes, self-pinching, and many other similar behaviors. The purpose of these behaviors is to ward off uncomfortable feelings, and in identification with their parents’ criticism of them, to punish themselves. These defense strategies serve to release anger and cause the child to ignore uncomfortable feelings.

“As a result, being unaware of true feelings often can become a characteristic feature of a person’s life. This reduces a person’s self-awareness and can affect the quality of life throughout an entire lifetime.”

I agree with something else Dr. Haiman said in his article. Raising a well-behaved child starts with continuously meeting their “developmentally normal needs and drives.”

When kids act out, we can always put them in time-out. The problem with time-out is that it doesn’t solve anything.

We solve the real problem when we understand an infant’s need for closeness and comfort, and continue meeting their needs through childhood with appropriate bedtimes and stories and shared responsibilities. That is what makes children feel whole and valued. And then through the teen years when children need their parents to be good listeners, we must help them sort through decisions as they reach into the world.

Only when parents decide to meet children’s needs willingly, selflessly, and with love can we solve the real problem.  FFG

Dr. Haiman’s article, “The Case Against Time Out,” was first published in Mothering Magazine. (May/June 1998, Issue 88)



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