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Time-Outs Work (But Not the Kind You Think)

Published on: June 10, 2014

Quick: What’s the easiest thing to say when your kid misbehaves? “That’s it — time-out!” Easy, yes. But effective?

Not the way most of us do it.

That’s one of the surprises I encountered while researching the book Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science — tips I collected as much for myself as for other new parents.

Here are excerpts of two tips I’m glad to know.

Call a calm-down, not a time-out

A typical time-out isn’t pretty: We threaten the time-out, lecture, threaten again, send our children away, angrily wrestle our little escape artists back into the time-out chair, make our children apologize afterward, and wrap up with a lecture. In other words, a heck of a lot of attention.

The truly effective technique? Briefly withdrawing attention from your child’s misbehavior.

The point is not to punish but to take a break so all parties can regain self-control. You go first: “I need to calm down. I’m going to take deep breaths.”

The key to “calm-downs,” as I started calling them, is to plan ahead:

  • Figure out what calms your child. What should your child be doing during a calm-down? Not “thinking about what she just did.” That’s not gonna happen; emotions are running too high. Instead, she should do an activity that you know tends to calm her.
  • Together, brainstorm ideas. It could be taking deep breaths (a 2½-year-old or 3-year-old can do this), punching a pillow, jumping up and down, asking for a hug, looking at a book, drawing, blowing bubbles ... whatever works.
  • Create a Wheel of Choice. Write the ideas on a pie chart, illustrate each one, and post it.

Here’s the shocker: When it’s time for a calm-down, it’s not necessary to send your child away. That’s because the key is withdrawing attention from the misbehavior, not necessarily the child.

You could say, “Would you like to go to your calm-down space, or should I go to mine?” You could even say, “Would you like to sit next to me while you calm down?”

Save the lesson for later — when everyone is calm. Ask questions in a nonjudgmental tone: “What happened there?” “What can you do differently next time?” “What do we need to do to make this right?”

Both calm-downs and time-outs send the message that the defiant or disruptive behavior needs to stop. But only one teaches your child a truly valuable skill: how to calm herself down whenever she’s feeling out of control.

When tots snatch toys, be direct

Toddlers hate to share, right?

I was fascinated to find this research instead: Toddlers like to be helpful. They just aren’t good at detecting when help is needed. They can’t yet guess another person’s feelings and state of mind.

How much information does a child need? In one study, an adult pretended to be cold. A blanket was within reach of the child but not the adult. The adult went through progressively more explicit cues until the child brought over the blanket.

Guess at which point the average 18-month-old figured it out? Cue 6, once the adult finally gestured to the blanket. But by 30 months? Cue 2, after the adult said, “I’m cold.” (Unless it was the child’s own blanket; then he resisted until Cue 4.)

So it’s not that an 18-month-old can’t help, cooperate or share. He just needs explicit instructions.

“Your friend is asking to play with the toy. Please hand the toy to your friend.”

“If you want to play with the toy, you need to ask. If your friend says no, you’ll have to wait for your turn.”

The tot often passes the toy — I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.

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