Discipline Without Spanking: 3 Tips for Effective Time Out

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By DeAnna

It seems that one of the most common subjects in the stand up routines of black comedians is the difference between black people and white people. More specifically, the differences between black parents and white parents.

We’ve all heard it before: White children are little hellions that run wild because their parents don’t discipline them, while black children are like mini-adults that rarely misbehave because of the fear that unacceptable behavior will result in parents that (to quote the the late, great Bernie Mac, ) “Bust their heads ’til the white meat shows.”

I laugh even as I type that last line, but the reality is physical punishment is no joke. Another reality is that parents of all races hit their kids to discipline them, so hitting your children doesn’t make you more authentically black than another parent that chooses not to. But I’m not getting paid (yet) to write a tirade about the scourge of spanking, this article is supposed to be about time out.

So let me start with this: I have used time out as a primary form of discipline for almost 2 years, and I can say first-hand that it can be an effective, non-violent way of modifying the behavior of your child. There are just a few basic guidelines I would recommend following to make it work for you.

1. Start Early (and don’t go too late.)

I was surprised when I went to my son George’s 18-month checkup, and had his pediatrician tell me that would be a reasonable then to start time out. I had assumed that I needed to wait until George was realy verbal, and could stand in one place alone before trying it out.

But no, the doctor told me that even if my son wasn’t talking a lot, he could still begin to grasp the concept of time out. Additionally, the inability to stand in one place issue could be addressed by standing with George in the corner until the time was up. Eventually, George began to learn to stay there on his own.

So, 18-months is when our time out journey began and I think it will probably continue until George is about 5. I have read 7 is an age when time out can still be an effective punishment, but I personally think that is a little on the old side. A minute per year of age (1 minute for 18 month old, 2 minutes for 2 year old, etc.) and a dedicated spot in your home is really all you need to get started. Oh, and a commitment–but more on that later.

2. Follow a predictable pattern

Time outs in our home usually start with a warning. The exception would be if it was something potentially dangerous that has already occurred (for example, throwing a toy across the room.) In that case, a time out would be ordered, no opportunity for another outcome.

But if we are trying to get George to do a certain thing, it typically goes like this.

“George, I need you to put your toys away.”
[George either complies or doesn’t comply.] If he doesn’t comply:
“George either you can put your toys away, or you can go to time out and THEN put your toys away.”

Like most rational 3-year olds, 99% of the time George will then decide to put his toys away. Because if he is going to have to do it anyway, might as well get to it, instead of staring at the wall for 3 minutes in between.

And like most rational 3-year olds, 1% of the time George will decide to go to time out and THEN put his toys away. I don’t know why–maybe because he needs a break. Maybe because he just wants to choose time out. I don’t really care, as long as he puts the toys away and I haven’t hit him–I have achieved my goal.

After the time out is over we have a little chat about what just happened. It usually goes something like this,

“George, you had to go to time out because you wouldn’t put your toys away. If you put your toys away, you won’t have to go to time out for that anymore. Do you understand?”

The for that is key, because the reality is your kid is probably going to have to go to time out again for something else in the future. During the chat, it is also important that you bend down to get on eye level with your child. Also, speak slowly and calmly. All of these things show your child that you mean business, and are trying to connect with him or her.

Some people suggest forcing your child to make eye contact with you, or demanding a hug or an apology. I said in this post why I don’t think forcing physical behaviors is a good idea. We also don’t tell our son to say sorry at the end of time outs because I am not a fan of promoting insincere apologies; it is important to me that he apologize only when he means it. I have found that by not telling him to say sorry, he has started to apologize for things on his own, when he thinks it is warranted.

I also end all time outs by asking George if he would like a hug, and reminding him that I love him. Because the reality is, we all screw up sometimes, and we need people in our lives that love us regardless.

I should also note that before the time out begins, I sometimes I give him two warnings. It really just depends on my mood. Sometimes I don’t feel like putting in the effort of monitoring a time out. But I never give more than two, and I never put out the possibility of time out unless I plan on following through. Which leads me to my next guideline…

3. Be Consistent

If you’re running late and don’t have 3 minutes to spare, don’t threaten a time out. It is also important to follow the time guidelines, primarily because it is what is most appropriate developmentally for children’s growing brains. I will either use a timer on the stove or my cellphone, or if I’m feeling lazy–the wall clock in our living room. But you don’t want to put your child in time out and then get distracted and forget about him/her. You also don’t want to allow any messing around. It’s not Camp Corner, it’s punishment. This means no singing, no looking around, no rubbing hands on the wall, etc.

Be consistent doesn’t just apply to time out, it applies to any form of discipline that you are using. If I was writing an article called Bad Parenting 101 The first rule would be Make Empty Threats. Children (young children especially, ) thrive on structure and routine.They take comfort in the fact that their parents say what they mean and mean what they say. One of the easiest ways to confuse a child and create more undesirable behavior is by being unpredictable with your discipline.

If you decide to commit to using time out, recognize that it will work–if you use it repeatedly and effectively. In times of stress, try to remind yourself of all the positive reasons that you are doing it, and that whatever cray cray behavior your child is showing at the moment will eventually pass.

Like, have you ever noticed when you’re watching a talk show about out of control teens, without fail the parents say something like “We’ve tried everything!”?

The reason they’ve “tried everything” is because they are constantly jumping around from technique to technique, not seeing anything through until it starts to work. In my house, we didn’t do time out once and never have any issues again. We did it until. Until we saw progress. Until George walked to the corner on his own. Until he stayed there without anyone holding him. Until he complied with our requests without having to threaten time out. Until he picked up his toys without being asked, because he recognizes that “it’s not good to be messy.” (Yes, he says that.)

Look, I’m not trying to say that George is a perfect little angel. But I will say that he respects my husband and me, is better behaved than most other children his age, and knows the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a variety of situations. And I can take comfort in the fact that violence or the threat of violence is not an undercurrent in our relationship. All while keeping my Black Card firmly in hand ?

Do you have anything you’d like to share? If so, leave it in the comments.

DeAnna is a former psychotherapist turned blogger and stay-at-home mom. You can read her thoughts about race, racism and other forms of inequality on her blog: www.myblackfriendsays.com