Why I Do Not Use Time Out or Time In and What I Do Instead

Many ask “what is wrong with time-out?  What do you do instead?!”  Here is my answer.

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time out

“What’s wrong with time out?” many ask. “What do you do instead?” Here is my answer.
Note: This photo is a reenactment. Sydney (almost 4) has never had a time out in her life.

When my youngest son was about 18 months old I was advised to start using time-outs.  Though I had been parenting my own way until this point, I listened.  It was awful. My previously connected son and I were at odds and disconnected. He was afraid that if he did something I perceived as wrong, I would banish him from my sight.  He worried that I would isolate him while he cried and begged for my attention.  When implementing time out, my husband and I cried too, no different than if it was our baby crying alone in a crib.

So we stopped.

We had no idea what to do instead.  We heard about time-ins.  This involves sitting with your child while they are in time-out.  Better, certainly, but it still did not feel right to us- it still felt contrived. We wanted to be fully present with our son in the way that felt right- not in the way somebody else told us to.

Do I Want to Punish My Kids?

As I thought about it I came to the realization that each of these “techniques” assumed that my child’s intentions were bad, and that he needed to be punished.  I knew enough about child development to understand that most of what I was punishing was normal aged behavior.  When Owen did do something to get my attention (a.k.a. acting out), did I want to punish him?  No!  I wanted to meet his need; giving him my attention.

This did not mean that I could let him bite, hit children, and break toys because he was mad, but did I need to punish him?

I started reading up. The more I was exposed to parents who were doing things differently- more peacefully, I realized that by using time-outs (and time-ins) I had once again started following what everyone else was doing, instead of what felt right for me and my child.  After spending time in a messy period (years not weeks) of not know what to do, I can now speak to what we do instead of time outs, or time ins, and it is not complicated.

What I Do Instead

First, I completely removed the idea of punishing my children.  I worked toward being less punitive and toward making choices that would connect us instead of force us apart.  Once I did this, other solutions became more clear.

If my child does something that hurts me, I tell him that it is my body and that I will not let him hurt it.  I tell him that I want to work through what is happening.

I use active listening, or verbalize what is happening around us.  Example:  “Sydney, I see that you are throwing those books.  It looks like you are really mad.  Are you mad because I did not sit down and read with you?”

If I am right, and this is what has made her mad, I have a choice to make; is there something more pressing that needs to be done than what Sydney needs from me?  Most often of course, the answer is no.  So I snuggle her up on my lap and read her some stories.  I cuddle her and kiss her and tell her how much I love her.

WHAT?! You may be thinking.  YOU HAVE JUST NEGATIVELY REINFORCED HER BEHAVIOR!  Yes, I took behavior modification classes as and Elementary/Special Education major too.  Stick with me.

Once Sydney is calm (and I am calm!) and we are again connected, I talk to Sydney about throwing the books.  “Hey Sydney, you know how you were throwing those books because you were mad?  It is not okay to throw stuff.  It makes me feel afraid that one might hit me.  It might ruin the books too. Maybe instead of throwing the books next time, you could bring one to me and tell me you want me to read it.  I will try to listen better.  Okay?”

We are both calm.  Sydney is receptive because she feels safe.  I am not embarrassing her or withholding my love or affection.  She is able to hear the message.  Most importantly to me, I have modeled an effective and calm way to handle emotions that are running high.

Things have changed in significant and positive ways in my family now that I am listening to myself and my children again.  Instead of punishing them, I am teaching them why the behavior is not okay, and giving them an alternative.  Most important of all, I am showing them that no matter what they do, I will be right there with them to help them through it; otherwise known as discipline.

Fine, but you must say “no”, so that they will learn?! Ummm…. click here.

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Comments

  1. I totally agree with you on no time-outs and on no punishment but it is funny as I use the word ‘time-in’ sometimes to explain what I do – and it looks pretty much like what you are calling the third alternative. It is non-punitive and mostly involves listening to my child’s feelings with total respect and empathy.

    I agree if a time-in is punitive that is little advance at all, but if it is just about slowing down and connecting with your child when they are upset, then I am all for it. I didn’t know it was being used in the punitive sense and think I will have to find a new name for what we do in this family, then.

    Thanks for the excellent food for thought!
    Gauri of Loving Earth Mama

    • Hi Mama,

      I think those of us in the gentle parenting circle have a very different understanding of time-in, because we have a different understanding of our children. Truly, it does not matter what each of us calls it, just that we are doing what we know in our hearts to be right for our children- which is undeniably to love, support, and care for them. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment <3

  2. Thanks for the post. This approach to parenting is a fairly new discovery for me. My kids are 7 and 11. While I’ve never given time outs to my children, I still took a “might makes right” attitude with them and in retrospect, I was a big bully. It’s a process, for sure and old habits are hard to break. Practicing calmness and empathy are my goals these days instead of power and control. My recent experience has been that other parents praise this style of parenting when they see it in action but react very defensively when I write or speak about it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. *nodding Jennifer*

  4. I had always heard of time-in as being just what you described doing. It is the opposite of time-out in that it is non-punative, a chance to reconnect with your child. I am glad you have found such a great technique, whatever it is called!

  5. I also call what you do (and what I do) time in. But I see what you are saying. Gentle parenting isn’t about “lesser” or “gentler” punishment and a time in can be inflicted on a child in a punitive manner. Since I teach parenting I find time in to be a good term for bridging people from punitive to gentle.

  6. I admire your words and strength. I can’t help but think “if only it were that easy for me to just ‘talk’ to my 21 month old”. But as a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and a father who is only involved with his weekend visits (that seem to do more harm then good) that this will be difficult and a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. I’m not saying it’s not possible or that it’s not right, simply that it’s not always going to be butterflies and rainbows. Yes eventually I’m sure child(ren) will respond much kinder to this technique but I honestly am stressed out just thinking about the pathway. I do realize my time outs/ins are ineffective and I *need* to learn a different way. What I’m asking is possibly for some more detailed suggestions on how to navigate this path.

    – From a strung out single mama simply looking for a little guidance <3

    • Hi Tracy, I was too a single Mom when my oldest were little. Back then, no one talked about gentle parenting, or respect for childen. It was 19 years ago and there was no real internet and certainly no support for anyone who didn’t feel right about spanking and harsh punishments. I often found myself responding to my kids in a way that just didn’t feel right on a very base level. Man, I wish I had known then what I know now. I did however, get there on my own once I started really listening to my gut feeling. It certainly is not an easy road, but it will make you stronger and the bond with your children will blossom. I used to remind myself of 2 things when things got tough; 1) I was all my kids had and if I wasn’t going to treat them gently, no one would. They needed me and trusted me and this knowledge stopped me in my tracks more than once; 2) although doing it alone was crazy hard, I also reaped the benefit of being the receiver of every hug and every kiss. I had the privilege of kissing every booboo and being their hero. I remember telling a friend that one day, my kids would realize just what I did to help them grow. This year on Mother’s day I received a letter from my 19 yr old son outlining how much he values the sacrifices I made for him. I still cry when I think about it. My 17 yr old daughter just did something similar as her Facebook status a week ago. Learning to be respectful and gentle as a parent is very hard work, but it comes back 100 fold in rewards in the end. Keep at it. No one does it perfectly all the time so don’t expect perfection. Just knowing you want to do better is the path to getting there. Peace.

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me. I greatly appreciate your kindness and taking the time to relate to me. I needed to read this today. Thank you 🙂

  7. I agree with some other commenters…I call what I do time in, but it is more like your option….I don’t just sit with my child while they are in time out, it is exactly what you said…calmly trying to find the reason behind the behavior, giving love, and talking about the behavior after things have calmed down. Sometimes this involves going away from the situation together, say to another room, or taking a walk outside for a change of scenery, or walking around a bit at a restaurant. Time in seems to describe a wide array of solutions, not punishments. I don’t know if it should be discounted so easily on name only.

  8. I am having this problem with my 15 month old. He has been hitting and gets upset. I have been told to “pop” him on the hand or flick him. This is so counterproductive! I am not in favor of punishment at all but he is too young to understand what I am saying to him when explaining why something is wrong. Any advice?

    • 15 month olds understand quite a bit. They may not be able to speak verbally yet but they are smart cookies. With my young toddler I like to sportscast (“You are throwing the blocks”), acknowledge any feelings that I think he might be feeling (“You are having fun! You like the sound they make”), then gently but firmly set and maintain a boundary ([holding his hands so he can’t throw the blocks] “But I won’t let you throw the blocks. It is not safe.”). I maintain the boundary until he finds something else to interest him. If maintaining the boundary really upsets him, I acknowledge those feelings too.

    • My 15 month old is doing the same thing. He is not trying to be mean. When we are playing and he gets excited, he swats, tries to pull my hair, and most recently discovered biting. I try to calm down the environment quickly, and get his attention, and connect by looking him in the eyes and waiting for hi
      To look back. I explain what he has done hurts me and it’s not nice. I ask
      him, “do u understand mommy?” he says yes. Does it mean he has stopped this behavior? No- but children need consistency and I know he understands. I know this is a phase, and it too shall pass.

    • Hi Rachel, I have a now 20 month old and he started hitting/biting around 15 months. They understand! If I act like I am crying he knows that he hurt mommy. When he comes up to me to kiss me and see if I am alright I say thank you to him and then calmly tell him that whatever he just did hurt mommy and that we don’t do that because we dont want to hurt people. I ask him if mommy bites/hits him and he shakes his head. I then tell him that I don’t like being hit or bit as well. It was hard at first because they have to learn this stuff but now that he is older he doesn’t do it as much or if he does it its easier to stop him from repeatedly doing it. Good luck. I know its not easy to always be a gentle parent or have to listen to other people saying “you should do this” but stick with it and the rewards will be plenty.

  9. Great post, thank you so much Jennifer! I will certainly share this 🙂

  10. I really like the point you made about teaching vs. punishing. What a big difference in approach!

  11. Love this. Thank you for sharing. This was my favorite line….”After spending time in a messy period (years not weeks) of not know what to do, I can now speak to what we do instead of time outs, or time ins, and it is not complicated.”
    Right now I am in the messy period of trying to figure out how this whole “not punishing my children” thing works and what it looks like. And thank you for sharing what works for you and what you do instead of simply saying what we are not supposed to do.

  12. I haven’t had a chance to read all your posts: so maybe you’ve already covered this. But, what do you do when talking isn’t doing it? My son hits and pushes. He’s 34 months and he won’t stop. This is what I’ve tried: 1) babying the victim. Asking him to help tend to the victim. 2) time outs. 3) time ins. 4) spanking. 5) isolating him to his room. 6) letting him know that child x isn’t coming over any more. 7) catching him in the moment and stopping him. 8) using a strong voice to say No if I’m across the room. 9) taking away toys. I agree that punitive measures are a reaction of my fear and are not leadership. I talk to him every time -once things have calmed down- about why hitting and pushing hurts and that I won’t let him hurt others. It hasn’t helped one bit. In addition, when he is playing with others, he is very physical. Grabbing the child, wanting to tackle, block the child into a space, take and hid his toys. I spend all the time asking him to stop touching. What have I don’t to cause this? How can I change my behavior or response to help him behave better? Thanks!!

    • Maybe you stop referring to your nearly-three-year old as a “34 month old” because it’s awkward.

      • Why do you care? This mother is asking for support in helping her child!

      • Jenna: You really took the time to post that? I’m guessing you’re grumpy today. Hope it gets better. As a follow-up things have greatly improved. I saw a Mothering Coach and we worked together on my behavior (deep breathing, setting age-appropriate expectations, staying playful). Also, most of the behavior was occurring with a particular child (I now realize). They don’t play together any more- and I haven’t seen the behavior since.

  13. What do you do if your current activity is more important? For example, you’re trying to get dinner ready and your child is throwing books at you?

    • Hi Shary,

      Thanks for stopping by. For me personally, if my child is throwing books at me I know something significant is up. There is little that would be more important than dealing with that.

      What I know now though is to be preemptive. Before I start cooking, I make sure my kids are doing okay. Have they had a snack? Are they thirsty? Did I spend some good time with them before leaving them on their own while I cook?

      That’s all on a good day, of course. Though they are far less frequent, there are still days I forget all of this (including turning off dinner!) and chaos ensues. My motto is progress, not perfection.

      It may feel like that doesn’t answer your question. That’s my solution to it though 🙂

      • Wish there were a “like” button for blog comments. 🙂 Great suggestions, Jennifer, and also needed transparency about what real life is sometimes like.

      • What do you say to my parents or husband who says “the child learns then that they get what they want if they throw a tantrum.”?

  14. Allyson Bossie says:

    I think these are great ideas for when children are little. I believe there does come an age, time, event, that a greater discipline is required. It’s usually when they are older and they have drawn a line in the sand to see who is boss, most children do this. For each of our children our solution fit their personality. Usually it means not getting to do something you would love to. Fortunately I have only had to do this a couple of times with each of my older children. With my youngest, we are still in the pay attention stage at 4 and don’t find discipline other than us sitting and talking (usually naughty behavior is crying out for attention) and we give him positive attention

    • This will sound nitpicky, but I do think it matters; I had a paradigm shift when I stopped looking at my kids’ behavior as naughty. It put me in total tune with them and we started working through things more quickly, easily, and calmly.

      My own mentors assure me this continues through the teen years.

      To this point, the predictions of parenting this way are coming true in my family, so I have no reason to doubt them.

  15. This is really interesting, I think the use of the phrase “Time in” varies quite widely. I don’t use the phrase at home, but will often recommend “Time in” to parents as an option during fraught situations. However, when I use the term, I literally mean a time to connect. It would look exactly how your “after” scenario played out; cuddles, curling up with a few stories together, just taking some time to reconnect and figure out any unmet need’s the child (or parent) is displaying, talking about what happened and using the opportunity for guidance to come up with a happier solution that works for everyone in the future. I haven’t heard of a time in being used in the same way as a time out with the company of a parent. Thank you for sharing this!

  16. Interesting – we use time outs – but we don’t use them as punishment. They are an opportunity to have your tantrum while not impacting other people. I take time outs. My husband takes time outs. My son takes time outs when he needs them, not when we ask him to. We figure getting upset and emotional is going to happen. It’s how you handle it that matters. It is simply uncool to allow your anger and frustration to affect someone else. So – you take a time out to calm down and then return to discuss whatever happened as a civilized person. My son gets frustrated when his friends don’t respect his time out (time alone) time. They don’t understand the concept. My son is 7 btw.

    If he asks to be held and snuggled when he is upset instead of taking a time out – I do that too. It’s all about giving ourselves an opportunity to calm ourselves down. I think because we model this behavior – when we get upset, he has learned being upset is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. You just deal with it, calm down and move on.

    So I guess for us – it’s not so much a time out as it is time alone to process your emotions. Anyway – great post.

  17. Nothing new or different here 🙂 Sounds exactly like what “time-in” is supposed to be – negative reinforcement (removal of a neg condition or stimulus in order to modify behavior). Then, parental response should be authoritative (high empathy along with high behavioral standards), respectful of the child’s dignity, and validating, etc. It sounds like the author equals the so called time-in with punishment which is not the same thing.

    • Hi there,

      I thank you for sharing your description of time in because it illustrates precisely the point I was trying to make!

      My own children respond “better” to a respectful and kind response- when the time is right. This may be days later, and is not done to hold them to a “high behavioral standard”, rather to share with them how to interact with the world.

      I am beginning to see that this is why I also struggle with the use of the word “limits”. In my own case, my kids want to know what is appropriate and even considered polite, they do not want to hurt people or their feelings. I do not believe my kids are unique In this – on the contrary.

      When we say “holding them to high behavioral standards” it implies that if we do not hold our children to them, they will not desire them. This is precisely what I am learning may be totally inaccurate.

      This is also a good time to note that words and phrases take on different and inaccurate meanings. Time-in may be different for everybody, and may have started out as a useful and positive concept, but it is now frequently used as masked punishment.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  18. Thanks for sharing, it was a real help for us. Recently my husband asked me when we’ll start doing time outs. And my reply was never, but with no good explanation. (Somehow mother’s instinct doesn’t persuade him). Lucky for me a friend posted this on FB, I was able to forward it to him. His response: oh okay, pretty much what we already do. Yes. We don’t have to be something we’re not as parents. Just, loving and supportive. At least for now, that’s what I’ve figured out…..

  19. Elizabeth Anne says:

    I have never heard anyone use the term “time in” the way you are here. I’m sure people do, but most people I know use it the way I do, to mean taking some time to connect with your child. Like just now, I was trying to make cookies, and my son was creating all kinds of havoc. I asked him to stop a few times, but when he didn’t, I stopped what I was doing, and gave him attention, found a way to involve him in the baking, etc… That is what I consider a time in. Terminology can get confusing.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      I agree. Terminology can get confusing.

      reading many of these comments has helped me understand why I don’t use time in. Sometimes (rarely it seems) it is used to literally just connect with a child. Most often, it is at least used as an opportunity to “explain to the child why the behavior is wrong” or “talk to the child about what he did, calmly”.

      This is precisely what I am trying to get at! I don’t believe that the time immediately following an issue is the time to discuss it, at least not very often. Hours or days later, things have calmed down, and both parent and child are more able to actually communicate.

      The example I gave in the piece above completely and intentionally ignored the behavior. I don’t believe that most people using the term time in ignore the behavior for hours or days.

      Now, just as a reminder, this is a new observation for me. I am still overcoming yelling! Each of these observations helps me to respect my children more though.

  20. What would your suggestion be for older children (5 to 8) with more serious infractions like ,hitting one another, destroying toys, screaming at you or other things they know are wrong or against the rules but they do anyways out of anger or simply a desire to do what they want to do.

  21. Christina says:

    What about when they are older, like school age and are making bad choices at school? I take the more,”let’s talk this out approach”, but his behavior is not changing. Any ideas, or parents of older kids whose direction you can point me in? Mine is a boy(red alert! haha) and almost 6. Thank you!

  22. Time outs are hit or miss for us…. maybe I’ll give this a try.

  23. Hi, I have been enjoying reading your posts and many others from like minded parents. I agree with all I have read but I do struggle with knowing what to do for the best. I feel my parenting was close to being spot on when I just had my first daughter and even my second 21 months later. Now, however, I have four young children and at times it feel near impossible to parent the way I want to especially under a time restraint (getting to school on time) or when all of them my be doing something undesired and all need my guidance. I can’t physically split myself and it can result in a knee jerk reaction to get the behaviour to stop as quickly as possible so I can help the next I then feel awful as I have reacted in a way I know isn’t effective but feel a bit trapped in a corner as I can’t spend a prolonged period supporting two while the other two may also need me at the same time.

    My children are now 7,6,3&19mths and I try my best to read alot and find inspiration but also feel overwhelmed and g a rd on myself as I don’t get it right at times of pressure. I also feel slot of solutions are straight forward when there is only one or two children.

    For example the book example you described I completely agree with but in our house this may happen at the same time as another child having a bump, needing help with ticketing while two others are having a disagreement or fight in the next room…. Ideally I would like to take my time and sit and guide each child through but time doesn’t always allow and who comes first!? Without making another feel inadequate or resentful or rivals with their siblings??

    Also what if positive parenting is inconsistent between parents, if one parent has been raised ‘traditionally’ and is almost programmed to punish, bribe, etc. This has been the case for us and my husband is open to other ways but finds it extremely difficult and lost at alternative ways. He doesn’t have the time to read as much as I do with the nature of his job. How does this effect the children long term? I find it can be fairly peaceful with hitches that I have managed to positively revert amongst the children then my husband can come home and one of the children do something and he may go straight down the path of ‘ if you keep doing that then you will not have a story ‘ this results in very upset and frustrated children that then come to me upset as it is such a different and confusing reaction mine. He tries extremely hard but was shamed when raised and punished for his actions or made to feel bad for his behaviours. He agree with all we discuss and read but equally in the .moment of not knowing how to react or calm at situation reverts to learned behaviour.

    I would be interested to read your thought on the above.

  24. A great post thank you for sharing!

  25. So how would you handle the “tantrum ” as some would call it if your.child where to act this way in public?? Say your doing errands and your child is bord despite making sure to bring things for them to do and engaging with them things that the both of you are going to do. Would allowing them to get their way when they act out really be helpful for them in the future. Making them think they can have their way. Although I can agree with what is written here for most times (like if its lunch time n food isn’t ready yet and their hungry) but what about when the child does it on purpose just because they know they can because you allow the behavior??

  26. I’d love to hear what you are doing physically with the child (in my case it’s my 3 year old) when you say “biting hurts my body…” do you hold them so they stop or can’t physically attack you or another sibling? I feel I have to, and wonder what other alternatives there are, before the kid is able to calm down.

  27. Exactly what you describe is what a “time in” is suppose to be… Not sure what your time ins were before …either way it’s Good!!!

    • CJ MOM- A lot of people get hung up on that. Prescription parenting is something I stay away from- that’s why whether it’s a time out or time in- I don’t think telling parents to follow a specific thing is helpful.

  28. What about when you are not there to help them through it? How do they cope then.

  29. hermommy101112 says:

    I’m in this place with my two year old now. I don’t want to spank, so I do timeouts and try to reinforce that I’m on her side, but timeouts don’t feel right and she keeps acting out. I see how the method you described works and feel it could work with us, but I have a special situation that I’d like to apply it to and am not sure how. Swim class! My child use to be the one to sit nicely and wait her turn and not wander or splash excessively – when she was a bit younger. But now, its to the point I don’t even want to go because I feel like I have to hold her down the entire time and its tiring and embarrassing and she’s truly testing my nerve.

    I’ve even done timeouts from the pool. This isn’t ideal because she really needs to learn to sit and wait her turn on the step in the water.

    So no timeouts….how can I apply the method you explained above in a public situation like that or one where our time is of the essence (we’re paying for it). Do I actually remove her from the pool to go and cuddle and just try again at the next lesson and hope it gets better. I know that sometimes you have to do what you have to do!

  30. Jody Lynn Maris says:

    My child is the type where holding him when he is misbehaving would only reinforce those behaviors.

  31. It seems like a great way to deal with an only child or when the child has hit you the parent but I’m wondering what you would do if it is your younger child who is being hit. I find it hard to spend any time with my toddler son when he has hit my daughter because my daughter is hurt and crying, needing my attention. I don’t want to turn all of my attention to my son at this stage and it feels strange to revisit a hit later on when he’s forgotten all about it. Any advice?

  32. I have been having such a hard time in my relationship with my older (who is four) and I am glad to have found your site. I used to work in childcare centers, and it sounds to me like the method described here goes way beyond what I learned from working in those centers (mostly mainstream). Thank you for this site, I will be coming back to it for other posts.

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