NEVER use time-outs?

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Why you should never use time-outs on your kids” was the recent PBS News Hour headline. The story argued that certain time-outs are punishments, punishments are harmful to kids, and parents should use alternatives. That sparked some exasperated comments:

  • “Punishments teach our kids that there are consequences for their actions.”
  • “Since all punishments are bad, parents just let their child act any way they want? I’m not buying into that at all.”
  • “Seriously getting ridiculous with all the ‘how not to punish.’ Kids from past generations are 10 times if not 100 times better behaved than any in the last few.”

I get that. And I want to take a look at the two issues going on here:

Is punishment the same as discipline?

Parents often casually toss around these words (before writing Zero to Five, I did, too), so they can seem interchangeable. But dig into the definitions that researchers use today, and a clear line divides punishment and discipline. Briefly:

Punishment is to make kids suffer to teach them a lesson.

Discipline is to model acceptable behavior to help kids practice acceptable behavior.

So “how not to punish” stories are talking specifically about inflicting suffering. The alternative is not “let your child act any way they want.” The alternative is discipline. I walk through the differences in this post. And why there’s so much talk about punishment, as defined, being harmful. And why some want to leave the term “discipline” behind–in favor of fresh words, with less baggage.

Bonus download at the end: How to call a calm-down

Is time-out a punishment?

Well, it depends on how you do it. In this case, the headline writer for PBS News Hour was trying to be provocative. The story itself was actually more nuanced.

If you threaten your child with a timeout, angrily snap “Time-out!” and/or physically force your child into a time-out spot, it’s a punishment.

But, as author Wendy Thomas Russell wrote: “If, during your “timeouts,” you are simply giving your child the opportunity to self-soothe (taking her out of the stressful situation, empathizing with her in a calm tone of voice, showing her how to take deep breaths, listening to her), that is fine! More than fine, even — because you’re not using timeouts as a punishment.”

This kind of confusion is why I advocate for renaming the whole thing. I put it this way: “Call a calm-down.”

You can see that the two scenarios are entirely different. Giving an out-of-control child (and yourself) a break to calm down IS a good thing. That is supported in the research.

You’ll find specific ways to do this in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

Calm-Down vs Time-Out from

Download the slideshow (PDF): How to call a calm-down

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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