Some Practical Notes on Using Time Outs

Anyone who’s going to deal with kids will find the "time out" useful as a disciplinary tool.  But what exactly is it and what should you remember when you utilize it?

What is a Time Out?

It is literally what it sounds like – a time out and away from a problem activity or behavior.  Kids will frequently get into a cycle or pattern of behavior and this removal from that activity can sometimes be enough to keep that from continuing when the time out is over.  It also serves to reinforce the idea that there are consequences for poor behavior and for a child, not being able to play is a significant consequence. 

Time outs can be used after the child reaches the toddler stage; this would typically be about 18 months of age.  To be honest however, I began using the practice several months earlier with one of my children.  This particular child found it fun to pop me hard in the nose when I reached into the crib for her; when simple corrections – don’t do that, that’s bad – didn’t work, I started to simply put her back in the crib when she popped my nose.  I’d connect this with the verbal correction and leave her in the crib for less than half a minute and repeat it each time I got smacked.  Yes, she cried but soon got the message that beating on Dad wasn’t the best choice. 

They are an effective tool – when used appropriately – for the toddler years and beyond but start to lose their usefulness when the kid reaches about 10 years of age.  At that point, there are other, more effective, means of discipline.

Practical Comments on Time Outs

  • The rule of thumb for a time out’s length is about one minute for each year of age.
  • When you put a very small child in time out, find a spot that is free of any entertaining activities whatever – toys, music, TV, whatever.  A corner or at the foot of the steps are both options.
  • Be prepared to stay nearby to ensure that the child stays there.  Depending upon the kid’s willfulness – or stubbornness if you prefer – you should be prepared to simply lose that time for anything that you were doing at the moment.  If Junior decides to move, make him return; when mine were younger, I would simply tell them to return and if they refused, I’d physically return them.  And yes, I’d tell them clearly that the more they refused, the longer they’d stay in time out.  While some parents believe that it shouldn’t be a contest of wills, the simple reality is that it is.  If you cannot get them to understand that the discipline is going to be enforced, then you’re going to have major issues later.
  • When you start a time out, be sure to clearly say why they’re going into time out.  And be sure to have a brief follow up to assure that they get why they were corrected.  It might be perfectly clear to you, but don’t assume that it’s perfectly clear to them.  Full disclosure:  Been there, done that.
  • Unless you’re comfortable that your child will actually not do anything – and some are dependable for that – then giving a time out in the bedroom is asking for violation of the time out.  Full disclosure:  Been there, done that.
  • If you do leave the immediate vicinity to attend to something else – cooking dinner, for example – then set a timer to remind you that the time out’s over.  Some kids will continue to sit.  Full disclosure:  Been there, done that.
  • If you’re engaged in cooking and hear problem behavior – and yes, that’s possible – that requires a time out, make sure that you use the right name for the child who gets the time out.  Multi-tasking can lead to mistakes so don’t be afraid to apologize the kid who wrongfully got the time out.  This goes back to the need to stay nearby.  Full disclosure:  Been there, done that.

Finally, remember that while the time out is a good tool, it’s not a panacea and should only be one of several in the father’s toolbox.


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