The dad was carrying his two-year-old son to the park. The boy fussed
and squirmed as Dad talked in his ear. Suddenly, Dad plunked the boy
down on the sidewalk and took three steps away from him. “OK, that’s
a three-minute time out!” he said louder than he intended. The fussing
escalated to a cry. Dad sighed heavily, hands on hips, and glowered at
the boy and the passersby.
First, kudos to this dad. He recognized that he and the boy both needed
a break. He did not let his frustration get the better of him. He did not
hit or threaten. But he could have used time-out more effectively.
Discipline is Teaching Self Control, Not Punishing “Bad” Behavior
Like his dad, when a toddler is upset, he has trouble thinking.The
point of time out is not to punish him, but to help him regain his
calm and self-control; and to create an an opportunity for Dad to
regain his calm and self-control, too.
Wrong Place for Time Out
A noisy, busy sidewalk with adults and pets bustling between them
and traffic whizzing by is not a soothing environment. If Dad could
have made it another half block they would have been in the park
where they could sit on a bench or on the beach to be quiet together,
give words to feelings, and regroup. Sitting together would show the
boy that his dad did not reject him, only his behavior. It would also
show that everyone (even Dad) gets upset and needs a break sometimes
to regain composure. Naming the boy’s feelings would prepare him to
use words instead of fussing.
The two-year-old is too young for time out. At his stage of cognitive
development, it is unlikely that time-out makes any sense to him.
So now in addition to whatever made him cranky, he feels frightened,
rejected and confused to find himself dumped alone on the sidewalk
with his angry dad backing away from him. A two-year old understands
that No! means Stop. But he has no idea what to do instead. He does
not understand that what he wants and feels is not the same as what
his dad wants and feels. He has no clue what three minutes means.
He has an innate fear of being abandoned, a survival mechanism
designed to keep him safely close to his parents; so seeing Dad walk
away is not going to calm him.
Time out is a good form of discipline starting around age three. And
then three minutes is about right, one minute per year of age.
Not the Desired Result
Dad wanted to teach self control, but ended up teaching fear. He
wanted his son to be good, but showed him he is bad. He wanted
to feel good about himself and his son, but both were feeling pretty
bad when I saw them.
For More on Effective Time Out, see Beginnings Parents Guide, Book 8,
pages 183 to187. For discipline for a toddler aged 24-30 months,
see Book 7, pages 162-164. This information requires no revisions
for the upcoming 4th Edition.
Next: While this dad did not use time out as well as he could have,
he is way ahead of a mother I encountered a little later.
More on that next time.