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Time-out: punishment or reward?

It occurred to me the other day that it might be time to stop using “time-out” as a punishment for your kids.

I don’t consider myself a parenting expert, but I am a mom and both my kids are young adults and I think they're pretty great… so I’m not completely without right to speak on this topic!

When my kids were small, everyone was all about “no spanking” and using timeout. It was the gold standard of punishment for kids when they misbehaved or became out of control. Sometimes it also became the running joke that “Mommy needs a time-out”.

Actually, I still have a coffee mug that depicts that theory in a childish font. It’s in the darkest corner of my kitchen cabinet somewhere behind the “World’s Greatest Mom” mug that’s got more dust on it than I’d like to admit.

But I digress… the truth is, Mommy does need a time-out. So does Daddy, so do all kids young and old. We all need “time-out”. It’s not a punishment.

What if we raised a generation that didn’t think resting was a punishment? What if we taught our children that resting and becoming mindful of our situation, emotions, and body was instead- an answer to our problems?

My son, now a strong, wise, mature young man of 21 about to enter the Navy as a naval aviator- used to struggle with his emotions. The “terrible two’s” for him lasted well into his “fours”. I came to find out that this was actually pretty typical for “gifted” children, because their emotions were overwhelming to them. Gifted kids, like my son, had a “left brain” with an appetite for information that was similar to a bear waking up from a long hibernation. His “right brain” and emotions were also coming online in a strong way- too strong for him to make sense of. This led to overwhelm for him, lots of tears and screaming, and lots of ‘exploring new ways to help him quiet them’ for me.

Now, after years of studying psychology and neuroscience – and beginning to grasp how the brain works- I’m quite certain that when I stopped using time-out as punishment and began sitting with my kids in their distress- is when things began to change.

I’ll admit, I didn’t figure it out as early as I would have liked though. There were many years of following the status quo in parenting. It looked like this: my kids spending their 3 to 5 minutes forced to be quiet with a timer while Mommy was in the other room fuming. Not exactly the picture of parenting that feels good- but probably a quite common one.

I wonder now, if instead of “putting them in time-out” to punish them, what if I had recognized the warning signs of overwhelm before they “blew up” and invited them to sit in quiet together with me? A cuddle in a rocking chair, a swing in the hammock, some lap time and a hug just because.

Wouldn’t this have taught them that they were valued, loved, and provided opportunities for their little brains to take some “time-out” to recover from whatever was beginning to upset them?

Yes, in a perfect world- that would work.

But what about those meltdowns that stem from absolutely nothing logical?! You know the one’s I’m talking about- the alligator tears because they dropped a piece of paper, or couldn’t find the crayon that was already in their hand. What about then?

I don’t know all the answers here, remember, I’m no expert… but I’m pretty sure that using time-out to punish instead of to repair and connect a damaged, confused, little, overwhelmed mind is not actually helping them in the long run. Instead of helping them, it’s creating a dislike for the concept of being quiet and still.

Neuroscience shows that we NEED quiet. It’s a necessity for the brain.

The Scriptures tell us to “Be still and know that I am God”. A simple formula yes, but one that works. It’s when we are still that we begin to intimately know God and His love for us.

If our brains are being hard-wired to view quiet and still as meaning we have just done something wrong- then how will we ever quiet long enough to know God? Why would we bother with resting?

Seems to me like I learned somewhere along the way to try to avoid the things that were used as punishment.

A few years ago, my then teenaged daughter came home from school looking quite frustrated. She didn’t look like herself, and she started to get a little bit “mouthy” with me when I asked her to help with dinner. The old me would have wanted to “send her to her room” to fix her attitude- much like the “time-out” philosophy had once suggested, but instead I took a deep breath and turned away from my dinner plans and looked her in the eyes. Without a word, we both took another deep breath. I asked her what was wrong, and she shrugged her shoulders and went to her room by herself. Then she called out to me and her Dad and we both met her in her room. She said to us, “Can you just lay here with me?”

What a sweet gift! We lay down on her bed, one on each side of her and just rested there for a few minutes. Her breathing rate slowed, our heartbeats seemed to synchronize, and my daughter began to look more like herself.

Boy, am I glad that I didn’t “send her to her room”! Instead, I got to be a part of a “time-out” that restored her and repaired a moment of damage from a long, hard day.

Now, I can honestly say that my daughter loves time-out with me. In fact, she’s driving up to see me from Florida next week and hopes to have a “time-out” with me up in the mountains. (Our favorite time-out corner). My son isn’t easily overwhelmed by his emotions, nor does he ignore them or try to shut them down for fear of a reprimand and being sent into isolation to deal with it on his own. I was far from a perfect parent, but as they grew up and I grew up enough to think for myself instead of only doing what the "books" told me to do- we learned that together is better, and quiet is good, especially when it leads to internal quiet!

(and don't get me started on how punishments of timeout tend to lead to a very noisy "thought pattern" full of anger, bitterness and sarcasm rather than internal peace!)

So, what do you think? Is it time for a revolution for the use of “time-out”? It’s a reward, not a punishment! It’s a gift- and something to be desired not feared.

Practice healthy “time-out” with your kids this week and change their impression of it today!

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