Child discipline is a subject often discussed by parents, but rarely is it ever done right, in my opinion. Apparently, I’m not alone. Coinciding with the past half-century’s moral decay is the decline of godly disciplinary methods (e.g., spanking) and the rise of the seemingly inscrutable “time out.” Well, in a sign that things are likely to get worse before they get better, it turns out that the tables have now turned against spanking’s gentler cousin. Are you listening, T. Berry Brazelton?
According to Melinda Wenner Moyer of Slate, time out is rarely effective at reforming behavior, is often misused, and might, therefore, be harming children.
So there I was last week, perusing a preschool parent handbook, when I stumbled across a curious anti-timeout policy. “Time-out is not an effective form of discipline,” the packet explained. “This focuses on the negative and alienates the child.”
I felt an immediate pang of guilt. I’ve given my almost-2-year-old a handful of timeouts—defined as a brief time away from rewarding stimuli like toys, parents, and friends—for hitting the dog, throwing rocks, and standing on chairs. A few Google searches later, I learned that proponents of attachment parenting advise against timeouts because the interventions give kids “the feeling of being rejected by their parents.” This backlash isn’t even that new—Child magazine published (and Parents magazine republished) an article in 2003 called “Why Time-Out Is Out.”
Have my attempts to raise a good little boy scarred him for life? Or are these anti-punishment policies way overprotective and perhaps even harmful?
Some psychologists do believe that if you practice good “positive discipline” techniques, by stating facts rather than demands, using distraction to steer kids away from danger, and working out solutions as a family, you shouldn’t need timeouts, or at least not very often. And timeouts can be ineffective, psychologically damaging, and make behavioral problems worse. But that’s not because they are inherently dangerous; it’s because so many parents and teachers misunderstand how they should be done. Indeed, plenty of research suggests that timeouts are safe and useful when parents employ them properly and in the right situations[...]
Timeouts don’t work very well, then, if you haven’t created a richly positive environment for your child. In other words, “it’s the effort parents put into time-in that determines whether or not timeout works,” Christophersen says, so when parents and teachers categorically state that timeouts don’t work with their kids, it can be a warning sign of more serious problems in the home or school environment. If you rarely praise, hug, or interact positively with little Sammy, then acting up may be the only way he can get your attention, and for a kid, negative attention (such as when parents get mad) is better than no attention.
In addition, timeouts generally only work in positive contexts because the timeout needs to serve as a deterrent, something that takes away fun[...]
This raises another point, which is that parents always need to be aware of what’s developmentally appropriate for their children. Your 18-month-old doesn’t deserve a timeout for not knowing how to share; sharing is a learned skill, and she probably hasn’t mastered it yet. Likewise, few 3-year-olds can entertain themselves quietly for 30 minutes during church sermons or while mom talks on the phone. (Although if mom keeps giving him brief reinforcements during the conversation—shoulder squeezes, winks, reassuring words—she might occasionally get away with it.) And if your 28-month-old isn’t cleaning up her room when you ask her to, it could be that she doesn’t know where to begin, so maybe it would help if you broke your instructions down into more manageable bits. Always ask yourself whether your child’s behavior is truly defiant or just a consequence of the fact that she doesn’t have the skills you think she has.
So what’s the proper way to initiate a timeout if your child has thrown her high chair across the room again? Calmly and simply. “We recommend stating the behavior clearly in terms of what the violation was: ‘Now you’re going to have to timeout because you engaged in this behavior,’ rather than saying, ‘You’re being bad’ or ‘That’s awful’,” Lutzker says. “It’s not supposed to be evaluative; it’s supposed to be factual.” Plus, when parents go into explanatory or pejorative diatribes, they are doing precisely the opposite of withholding attention. (Christophersen advises parents to keep explanations even shorter: “no hitting,” say, or “time out hitting.” Then, shut up.)
That brings us to another mistake parents commonly make with timeouts: They don’t really give timeouts, Christophersen says. Instead, they keep fretting over their kids, which can turn the timeout from a deterrent into a positive reinforcement. If your daughter cries during a timeout, don’t attend to her; she is understandably upset, but she will learn over time to self-soothe. If she laughs and pretends to be having a blast, don’t yell at her to be quiet. Just leave her be. And don’t require her to apologize or fess up at the end of the timeout, either.
Another common misconception is that you have to physically isolate a child during a timeout. The important thing is not where your child is but that he doesn’t get to interact with anything interesting, including you. This means that you can initiate timeouts in strollers, cars, chairs, even on the changing table—the key is to withhold attention and eye contact for a certain period of time or as long as the bad behavior persists.
So, what can we learn from this article?
Time Out Is Absurd No Matter How It’s Implemented
First of all, time out is limited even in the best of circumstances. It is only effective when the child is removed from something more fun. If they misbehave out of boredom—and, as a parent, that’s a big slice of the misbehavior pie—then you are out of luck, I suppose. And, if the child is one of those kids that tends to “have a blast” in time out, then what? However, Moyer thinks this is impossible. No child can possibly enjoy two or three minutes in a chair without eye contact or toys, and yet I’ve witnessed things to the contrary. How odd.
Secondly, the ideal disciplinary approach that’s laid out by proponents of attachment parenting is exhausting and contrived—dishonest, even. Successful parents have to hover around their children, distracting and redirecting them like rodeo clowns and then, when that fails, conferring with them—using only facts, of course—so as to reach some mutually congenial solution. The latter feels less like parenting and more like treating with political rivals and with all the solemnity and sterility of parliamentary procedure. Children aren’t equal with parents, though. Experience tells us this, as does the Bible (1 Cor. 13:11, Eph. 6:1-3, Exod. 20:12, Col. 3:20). Children reason as children, while parents hopefully reason as adults. Children are often comically naive as to how anything works or should work, while parents are usually less so. Children can’t adequately take care of themselves, while parents generally can.
Thirdly, the avoidance of moral terminology, like “wrong” and “bad,” in preference for “just the facts” is a silly impossibility. I say that because it’s impossible to punish without some recognition that a standard has not been maintained. This desire for a non-judgmental environment becomes particularly absurd when one considers fighting among siblings. For example, if your son pushes your daughter and the daughter starts wailing, is her wailing not an indication to the son that he’s done something “wrong?” What’s more is that proponents of this disciplinary method can’t even describe their methods without violating their own lofty standards. John Lutzker, director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University, advises parents to state “clearly in terms of what the violation was,” but violation connotes failure and wrongdoing. Finally, let’s say for the sake of argument that parents do manage to raise their children in this disapproval-free bubble. What happens when the children leave home and experience the unadulterated criticism and disapproval of a much harsher real world? That will be one heck of a steep learning curve.
But if Moyer’s paradigm is so silly and ineffective, then what should take its place?
The Effective and Biblical Disciplinary Approach
Bible-based, Christian parenting. Yes, that even includes spanking. Now, I know that to modern researchers, spanking is just another name for a crazed beating from a belligerent parent, but I couldn’t disagree more with the misperception of this maligned disciplinary tool. Frankly, the most well-mannered and sweetest kids I know—some of whom are those dreaded teenagers, no less—have been spanked plenty by their loving, God-fearing parents. To be fair, it is certainly true that many parents who spank do so out of anger and without explanation or instruction, and one should find that approach to be repugnant, but one mustn’t pretend that because some butcher God’s standard, God’s standard is unworkable, corrupt, and dangerous.
What is to be done is that parents are to first see themselves as worthy of honor because they serve as God’s agents—caring for, instructing, and protecting the children that have been entrusted to them. Genesis 18:19 provides the foundation for this noble calling. God tells Abraham what He has in store for him and his offspring and how He will bless Abraham for his covenantal faithfulness, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” Fathers are responsible for continually edifying their families, for teaching both their wives (Eph. 5:25-27) and children (Deut. 6:7) about God’s righteousness and justice. Children are commanded to honor and obey their parents, so that they may have a long life and experience His favor (Exod. 20:12). When children fail to obey the rules that have been set before them, they are to be struck in love because loving parents do just that (Prov. 13:24). We are called, out of loyalty to God and His righteousness, to drive the folly from the child’s heart (Prov. 22:15). And when spanking is done correctly, it serves as a means of grace (Prov. 20:30). What is often missed by secular researchers and counselors is that biblical discipline is not simply punitive, but restorative. We are to spank not out of wounded pride or anger, but with a hope of bringing the child back to the path of righteousness and wisdom.
I guess, given my defense of spanking, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that I don’t just talk the talk, but with the Lord’s help I walk the walk, as well. I do spank my son and have consistently done so since he has been old enough to willfully disobey. And, thanks be to God, my discipline has been made effectual. My son is polite, obedient, and joyful, but he wasn’t always like that. I can assuredly say that he wasn’t “born good,” though some suggest as much. My wife and I began spanking him when he developed a habit for screaming and hitting us every time the specter of bedtime was raised. Ironically, it took spanking (and prayer) to stop him from hitting us, and within a matter of weeks he stopped entirely, and we haven’t looked back since. Now, my instruction might not always be wise or my discipline reasonable, but, even then, my son will still learn prudence by heeding my reproof (Prov. 15:5, Prov. 29:15). In Moyer’s world, two-year-olds should not generally be capable of picking up after themselves, let alone sit still in church for half an hour. However, my son has been capable of sitting through my church’s hour-and-a-half service every Sunday for months now and cleans up when told—although not perfectly, of course (he is just two, after all). The fact that most children “can’t” do this tells me more about the efficacy of modern parenting and the ignorance of researchers than it does about the capabilities of the child.
How I Do Things
So if my wife and I don’t just beat the stuffing out of our son, what exactly do we do? We begin by telling him his fault and why he needs to be punished, then we vigorously spank him, and finally we wrap it up with prayer, apologies, and some restorative hugs and kisses. Then, all is forgotten by both of us and we get back to being pals. I don’t scream and shout, I don’t lose my cool, and I don’t humiliate him by dredging up past sins. Neither does he mope around afterwards. Now, how many researchers have considered that model when they consider spanking? Not too many, I’d bet.
In conclusion, Moyer’s article tells us many things. The grand theme, though, is that not even time outs are sacred anymore because they are poorly utilized and, therefore, psychologically damaging. But her suggestion is to wander further from the godly standard and head deeper into the thickets of wickedness. To her, children are to remain equal with parents and should never experience their parents’ displeasure. But both the Bible (Eph. 6:1-3, Exod. 20:12, Col. 3:20) and human experience tells us that children aren’t equal to parents—not even close. For parents to ignore the various differences between children and parents is to engage in fanciful child’s play themselves. But not only that, bringing children into parity with parents is also theologically bankrupt and dangerous: it leads children to be ignorant of their sinfulness and puffed up with self-conceit. Eventually, this kind of inanity will have to implode. It may take a few more generations of godly, homeschooled children to overwhelm the countervailing horde of narcissistic, irreverent whiners, but I have hope that, in light of the fruit borne from biblical Christian discipline, eventually all these silly, unbiblical parenting whims will look impotent, disingenuous, and hollow to all.