I was once an orthodox believer in the power of time-out—the practice of having a child sit in a somewhat isolated chair for five minutes or so immediately after said child has misbehaved. I promoted time-out in this column, my books, and my public presentations. Used consistently, I said, it should take care of just about any discipline problem. I especially liked the fact that time-out was painless yet still unpleasant enough to a young child to cause him restraint the next time he was inclined to step out of line.
I would recommend time-out to parents who were dealing with an errant child and almost invariably receive, a week or two later, a glowing report. If I dare claim—and I’m by no means proud of it—I probably did more to popularize time-out than anyone in the known universe, even the earth. From sea to shining sea I carried the good news: Armed with but a chair, a timer, and a short list of misbehavior, anyone could have a well-behaved child! Hoo-hah!
Then I began hearing (or finally started paying attention to) disturbing reports of children who responded well to time out for a few weeks and began backsliding. Not to be undone, I flippantly attributed these reports to parents who’d gotten lazy and inconsistent. Then parents began telling me of children who would sit in time-out for the requisite length of time, get up, and immediately misbehave. Then I heard of children who would cooperate with the procedure for a few days to a few weeks and then suddenly begin refusing to cooperate and stood their ground and things in the family grew worse than ever before. These were followed by stories of children who would sit in time-out and scream bloody murder, repeatedly slam their time-out chairs into walls, slide their chairs from room to room, or some equally inventive combination thereof.
Finally, it came to me that it was impossible for parents to apply time-out consistently, and that children intuited this rather quickly. It could not be used if a child misbehaved just when his or her parent needed to exit the house quickly to make an appointment, or the family was in the car or a public place or someone else’s home. So, guess when these kids began doling out most of their misbehaviors?
I also realized—I suppose I qualify as a slow learner—that to many a pre-delinquent child (which they all are) time-out was nothing more than a nuisance. It was the epitome of attempting to thwart off a charging elephant with a flyswatter.
The fact is, time out works for a short period of time with almost all misbehaving children. Its novelty upends them, for a while, but wears off quickly. In the long run, it is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, especially for a child who is highly defiant.
I concluded: Time-out works with children who are already reasonably well behaved. But then, so does just about anything, including a firm verbal reprimand. As regards chronically ill-behaved children, however, time-out is insufficiently persuasive.