Most childraising books and internet sites still promote time-outs as an effective discipline tool because it 'gives your child an opportunity to learn to cope with frustration and modify his behaviour'. This sounds good in theory and because of the negative press given to using a smack, about the only option for modern parents. But, as most parents find out, this is a very ineffective technique for most people.
Why it doesn't work
1) it requires parents to delay discipline until the child is old enough to accept time-outs which is at about 3 years old. So that is a crucial 2 years of training that is missed when parents can establish their authority.
2) parents run the risk of looking ineffectual and foolish when the toddler runs away or wiggles or screams or sits when you said stand or vice versa. Parents lose authority when it becomes clear to a child that mum and dad aren't in charge.
3) the lesson the parent is trying to teach is often lost because of the delay in getting the child to do the time-out.
4) time-outs can last too long in relation to the offence for young'uns or not long enough with older children. It is difficult to get the balance right. Experts say a time-out shouldn't last more than 30 secs until a child is 3 but what can a toddler learn in 30 seconds? It takes that long to hold them still! The only technique that works with small children is a firm tap on the hand or bottom by a loving, calm parent. That is the reason it has been used for so many generations.
The Logic in holding off on discipline
Baby experts suggest holding off on discipline until your child understands what's acceptable and not (somewhere around the third birthday). In the meantime, they recommend childproofing your home to reduce opportunities for mischief and use distraction to redirect your child to more suitable activities. This strategy is a flawed one. Letting your child have the run of your home - and you- for three years and then turning around and saying 'now you have to listen to me' is a recipe for a battle of wills. Establishing your authority before the child reaches an age to rebel is sensible and the early years are a perfect time to teach your child to listen to you and to realise that there are rules. Childproofing your home so your child is not in danger is essential, of course, but removing opportunities for mischief and distraction means removing opportunities for teaching an early but crucial first lesson - 'YES/NO'.
This is how this lesson was taught in previous generations:
a) When a crawler reached for a vase on the sidetable, parents said NO clearly and firmly.
b) When he reached again, they walked over and said NO again and then gave him a little tap on the back of the hand. It would only take a few reiterations for the baby to learn this rule.
It is still as simple as that. By the time he is a toddler, he will already have mastered several rules and some manners. By the time he is three, he will be used to following your authority and will already know the boundaries of behaviour required in his home. There is a lot of negative press about using smack so it is understandable that modern parents are reluctant to return to this model of parenting, as effective as it was. However, it is important that you make your decision based on facts, rather than emotive news reporting. See Myth 2 for more information.
The modern need for multiple disciplinary approaches
The experts at the popular website BabyCenter, however, have this advice for new parents:
No single disciplinary approach, including time-outs, will transform your toddler into an obedient angel. You'll want to experiment with a variety of discipline techniques throughout his toddlerhood to find out what works best for both of you. In fact, if your child is usually obedient, you may be lucky enough never to need a time-out. Requests and redirection may be sufficient. Or you may find that using the positive time-out technique — changing the pace to a quieter activity — works well throughout your youngster's childhood. At every stage, learning which behaviors are normal (or unavoidable) will help keep your expectations realistic.
Having told parents that time-outs are the way to go, these experts then turn around and say that no single approach will work. Where does that leave parents? Most parents who find that time-outs are ineffective (which is what usually happens) are left floundering, looking for another approach that will work. What usually happens is that parents develop a fly-by-the-pants method of dealing with each situation as it develops. This is equally ineffective as it is inconsistent, not to mention frustrating.
On top of this, the experts suggest that parents may NEVER need to use discipline in their children's childhood if they use techniques like redirection! What an irresponsible thing to say to young parents. It may lead them to a) holding off on discipline because they believe this misinformation or b) feeling inadequate when they invariably discover their child is not a perfect angel but a normal mischievous child. Discipline is an essential part of parenting: it builds firm boundaries for children, making them feel safe and trusting, and it leads to children being able to discipline themselves which is an essential quality for being a mature, responsible adult. Children will not learn these boundaries through parents AVOIDING the need for discipline.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that timeouts are an ineffectual way to discipline children. To be effective, it needs to be combined with other disciplinary measures, possibly several, as children get older, but this in turn makes it difficult for parents to be consistent in their discipline. Timeouts and consequences require parents to be adaptive and reactive and on the balls of their feet all the time. This is not a good foundation to consistent discipline. Consistency is a cornerstone of good discipline as it teaches children their boundaries.
So What do I do instead?
A more effective method is to return to tried and true old fashioned methods of discipline. The old fashioned methods of parenting worked because the focus was on bringing up children as a part of the family, community and society instead of making them feel like they were the centre of the universe. It worked because discipline was consistently enforced without anger so children could absorb the correction and still view their parents with respect and a little healthy awe. I talk more about how to do this in 5 Keys of Easy Parenting but the basic principles are :
a) always be calm (or appear to be calm) when disciplining children. Any correction applied by an angry or frustrated parent loses most of its power as the children are focused on the parent rather than the correction.
b) choose just 1 or 2 disciplinary measures that you will always use. This allows discipline to be predictable - for the child and you. It will remove a lot of the stress and frustration of modern disciplining.
c) be consistent in what you do and how you do it. Decide how many warnings/requests you will give and then always correct a child promptly. Again, this makes discipline - and you - very predictable to a child; and
d) never explain, argue or reason with your children as it invariably leads to heated scenes that diminish your authority.
e) and, of courses, be loving and courteous to your children.In the end, families are meant to be a comfort and a joy, not a battle zone.
One final note: a problem many parents have, is that once they take timeouts out of the equation, what do they use to discipline small children? The only measure I have seen that works, and I know it goes against the modern parenting establishment, is an old fashioned smack on the hand. This is little more than a tap but is incredibly effective in teaching a child her boundaries. This is not perceived as violence when delivered by a calm and loving parent. It is nothing more than setting boundaries - 'this is as far as you can go, sweetheart'. Even better, it allows parents to be consistent and predictable, creating a safer and more secure environment for children. However, the above principles of parenting will still work with the use of consequences - parents will just have to work that bit harder to be consistent.