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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Discipline, Part 1

I have to admit that I've been a little reluctant to tackle the topic of discipline. This is, by far, one of the most delicate topics in the parenting world. People tend to be very defensive about their choices regarding discipline for their children. And yet I keep coming back to this in my mind over and over again. How can I address parenting issues and ignore what I view to be THE biggest issue of all?

Part 1 of this series will focus on the very popular method of discipline: Time Out

What does that mean, really, to take a Time Out? In sports, time outs are used to regroup and discuss what strategy needs to be used going forward. Coaches use a time out to stop the current action and regain focus and clarity as to what the team members need to be doing, especially if what they were doing was incorrect.

So in the world of children, how does Time Out relate? I've read a lot that says time outs should be used as a way of redirecting your child's behavior. When they are misbehaving, you're supposed put them in time out to give them a chance to consider their behavior and why it was wrong. I've also read others who say that time out is supposed to be used to remove a child from the activity when their behavior isn't appropriate, not so much to allow them to consider the behavior but to prevent them from being allowed to participate in the fun that others may be having.

Well, in my own mind, neither of these seems quite right. It seems to me that there needs to be a great deal of parental involvement in the process of invoking a time out. Sitting a child in the corner and leaving her there for a number of minutes to consider her wrong doings is incredibly insufficient.

A young child does not yet have the ability to rationalize her behaviors and why she acts the way she does. It's easy to explain to a 4 or 5 year old child that hitting is bad, but how can that child be expected to comprehend all the reasons behind why she chose to hit her sister in the first place? Sitting her down by herself for 5 minutes of time out to allow her the chance to consider the reasons why she did something and why she should not have done something just seems kind of pointless if the child does not have the maturity to fully understand her own emotions.

At the age of 2 or 3, time outs are fairly useless because a child that age may not even recall why they are in trouble, and they certainly can not be expected to contemplate the value of doing something right in favor of doing something wrong. Children of that age are just too wrapped up in their own needs and desires to think beyond to the consequences of their behavior.

Now, some of those reading this may be wondering if Mom has lost her marbles considering that Time Out is currently the most advocated form of discipline. Rest assured that my marbles are not lost. In fact, I don't think I have ever even owned any marbles, so how could I possibly lose them? But for those who are wondering, I want to assure you that the concept of Time Out does have its place in the realm of discipline. I just feel that it needs to be considered more carefully and used a bit more sparingly in order to reach the full potential of its usefulness.

"Well then, Mom, how should Time Out work if it is to be useful?" you say.

Guess what. I'm going to tell you.

First, a time out for anybody under the age of 3 should be enforced in the loving arms of an adult, and not on a chair or stool where the child will be expected to sit for a length of time. During this forced embrace, I think the parent should speak softly and calmly to the child to help the child remain calm and focused on the act of being held. The parent should discuss the behavior and reinforce what is expected, but be aware that the child will likely repeat the offense several times before understanding that the behavior is inappropriate. Children of this age often act out due becoming overwhelmed or frustrated. Considering this, the mere act of holding the child gently in one's arms is often enough to redirect their behavior to something a bit more appropriate.

Second, for a child ages 4 to 6, I feel that time out should include a period of discussion between the child and the parent. I've often seen parents yell "TIME OUT" to their child and separate the child without ever explaining the reason or discussing the behavior. Without some amount of discussion from the parent, the behavior will never improve. A child does not intrinsically know what behavior is accepted and what behavior is not. It is the parent's job to teach this. It doesn't matter how many times you've already told your child that hitting is wrong, you still need to include verbal discussions regarding the infraction and the expected behavior when instigating a time out. Furthermore, it is important to engage your child in conversation without being accusatory. Asking the child "Why did you hit your sister?" and then discussing her reasons and the harm that she inflicted is far more powerful than telling her to sit for 5 minutes and think about why she hit her sister and why it was wrong. (Can you tell we've been having a few hitting issues in our house?) When you ask your child to explain to you why she has done something, she is then forced to consider the reasons behind her actions and express them verbally. Verbal expression gives her a chance to be heard and voice her own side of the story instead of being punished for her behavior without a chance to be heard. Communication is always the best defense against future problems, so after your child tells you why she hit her sister you can then discuss possible alternatives for any future issues that she may have. It is very important to be actively involved in the child's time out at this stage so that you can direct the child in a more proper set of behaviors. "Sit and think" just isn't quite enough to help the child learn the best way to deal with certain situations. Discussions of this nature should be as private as possible. Frankly, it isn't the entire playgroup's (and everybody hanging out at the park) business to know the details of such discussions and keeping your own voice low and steady will help calm your child and allow her to hear you more clearly.

For children older than 6, time outs become a bit obsolete except in the most extreme cases. When you are dealing with older children, you begin to enter the realm of power struggles. Children are often very strong willed. A parent should never enter a power struggle with their child unless the situation is extremely necessary and the parent knows without a doubt that they can outlast their own child's stubbornness. One lost power struggle can demolish every bit of authority that a parent has achieved over the years. Avoiding them is almost always best. (Save it for the teen me - you'll need it then.)

Basically, it's my opinion that time outs can be very useful for younger children. It's a good mechanism to allow the child a way out of an overwhelming situation and a way for parents to sit down and discuss certain behaviors with their child away from prying eyes and ears of those around. Above all, it is important to respect your child even when enforcing any type of discipline. It is not necessary or advisable to humiliate or embarrass your child just to get their attention.

Remember, time out is much more useful when used sparingly and when you are actively involved in the entire process.


Tiffany said...

Time-outs haven't worked well for us, in any form. But, just wanted to let ya know I'm keep up with ya, and miss talking to you! Hope the kiddos are well.

Petula said...

You have some very valid points. I've done every method of time out right and wrong. :) Sometimes I am just not in the frame of mind to discuss or embrace, but have spent time discussing with the middle children. However, I never thought of it as time out.

It's interesting, I recently saw a show that spoke of the embrace, but it's called touch therapy or something like that. It's also used for some children who have Asperrgers. I like this post and I am having visual of trying to embrace fiesty Anna. LOL.

Jude said...

Very good post and I have seen some good results over the years with the time out, but it doesn't always work as you pointed out with all children. There definitely needs to be communication with your child so they will understand and I like the holding technique.

ModernMommy said...

I do use time out with my two year old. I will admit some of the time it is just to give me a chance to calm down and regroup.
Honestly sometimes it is the only thing that I can do to get her to cooperate. She does not like to get dressed, have her diaper changed, etc. so when we need to get out the door I have to use it. I sit her down in the same spot every time tell her why she is getting a time out, then when it is over I repeat the reason again, she apologizes we hug and we move on.
I've tried many different strategies (except spanking) and this is the only one that will work for her.

ModernMommy said...

Just wanted to add that I have tried time-in or holding and she is so resistant that I cannot physically hold her without hurting her.
How would you address this?

Mom said...

ModernMommy -

If your child is extremely resistant to being held when she's upset, then the best thing to do is not hold her at these times.

The key component of successful discipline is always to know what your child's personality.

As with all parenting techniques, what works for one child may not work for another. It's imperative that parents be in tune with the needs of their child in order to be successful in your job.