It's been about a week since my youngest had a timeout. Though he doesn't need them that often, he really doesn't use them in an effective way, either. Still, I continue to use timeouts with the hope that one of these days he'll calm down, breathe, and re-center. As a 5-year-old kid, I suppose it's a lot to ask of him. Timeouts worked for my daughter, though, so I have faith. Then again, the things you're teaching your kid when you give them a timeout have started to give me cause for concern, or at least a reason to step back and assess whether or not this particular brand of discipline is beneficial. If I'm truly being honest with myself, I have to admit that I've neglected to think about what I'm telling my child when I put him in timeout, and those messages could potentially alter our relationship entirely.
Admittedly, there are plenty of times I need a timeout myself. Sometimes one of my children will do something (even after I've asked them not to) that creates a minor/major panic attack I can't help but feel, and screaming "go to timeout" seems to be my easiest response to a situation I feel somewhat out of control of. In other words, my children's timeouts are really chances for me to have a timeout of my own.
As both kids grow older, though, I'm constantly faced with new challenges. Timeouts aren't always the best consequence but, for some reason, I keep trying to make timeout happen. Maybe by sitting my 10-year-old daughter on the same stoop she's known for years, I'm teaching her to never give up on her dreams? Far stretch? Probably. I'm seeing that what I've been doing hasn't worked because it's sending all the wrong messages. I thought I was doing a good thing by choosing a non-physical consequence, but if any brand of discipline isn't working, I should start thinking about why instead of doubling down. After all, the examples I set matter, and I'm starting to think that timeouts aren't as beneficial as I had hoped. So, with that in mind, here are some things you're probably telling your child when you put them in timeout, and perhaps even a reason why it's time to start using an alternative.
"I Don't Want To Listen To You"
By sitting either kid in a special place away from me (we used the bottom of a staircase), I thought I was letting them calm down enough to re-join the rest of the family when they were ready. Instead, I've learned that I'm saying I don't want to hear how they feel about what's happened, so I'd rather stick them in a corner to deal with it themselves instead of listen to them and help them work through whatever it is they're feeling. That's not the lesson I want to teach my children. At all.
"I Refuse To Deal With This"
Even when I need a breather (which, admittedly, is often), it's important I change the way I go about finding a few moments to myself, especially if I want to raise kids who trust in me as their mother. Timeouts can sometimes be a push-pull situation, where I'm essentially the Queen of the world, ordering my tiny humans to do as I say. The mere threat of a timeout is enough to make them stop what they're doing entirely, and I don't like that. I want to deal with the problem firsthand, not prolong a problem or pretend a problem doesn't exist.
"Communication Doesn't Matter"
I certainly don't intend to teach my kids how to emotionally shut down instead of communicate why they did what they did. I want them to know they can come to me, we can talk things through, and it will be OK. I do not want them to think that I'm bucking my responsibilities as a parent by shutting down lines of communication in the hopes my children will just figure it out on their own.
Most of the time, I don't think my kids calm down or learn a thing from a timeout. If anything, they're just spending that time planning revenge or ways to be sneakier about how they got in trouble the first place.
"I Could Teach You Something, But I'd Rather Not"
As parents, there's always a lesson we're trying to teach our children. Sometimes, however, that lesson can get lost in the anger or exhaustion of a particular moment. Putting one of my kids in timeout is a missed opportunity to teach them why they're being punished, or what they should've done instead. A few silent minutes of my son or daughter on the bottom stoop of the stairs teaches them nothing.
"Learn Not To Trust In Me"
Of all the things I've done to help my kids learn from their mistakes, I think the timeout is the one that teaches them to turn away from me, rather than to me. By making their timeout space a place far away from me, I'm telling my children that I can't be trusted to handle their big emotions in a calm, authoritative, responsible way. I'm saying we could've had a mature conversation about the preceding events, but instead I overreacted. Trust is so important, why would I want to risk losing it?
"You Can Only Learn Through Shame"
Thinking in terms of what a timeout teaches my kids, the biggest lesson that comes to mind is how I might be shaming them. Whether it's mentioning a timeout in front of company, or teaching them to fear me, I don't want our relationship to grow from a place of shame or judgment. It may work for some, and that's great, but I'd much rather find alternatives that keep love, trust, and lines of communication open. I don't need to create bargaining chips to essentially bribe my children into good behavior. I just have to model what good behavior is, and talk through the moments when they fail to emulate it.
Sounds easy enough, right? (Gulp.)