As a practicing pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, I wish to go on record and state: I do not like traditional timeouts as discipline for children. Sure, if the choice is between beating your child or timeout, I am in favor of the timeout, for the parent, not the child. We adults need it sometimes.
The practice of timeout probably was created by some former minor-league hockey fan or ref, much as one would use a minute or two in the penalty box. You whack someone with a hockey stick and in you go for two minutes. Two siblings fight, with or without sticks, and in they go. There is no attempt to redeem or to teach about alternatives. Hockey players don't negotiate. Once the time is up, back they skate into the fight before a hockey game breaks out.
Another comparison would be to our penal system and solitary confinement. Timeouts imitate sentences in the slammer. There are misdemeanors or major felonies. If it is an especially hard day for the mom, it would be five-to-life for the kid. Or maybe the roots go back to medieval penitence and being sent to a monastic cell, or perhaps it is derived from the practice of political exile for some illegitimate son wanting to be king.
The problem with timeout is that it isolates the child from the solution of the problem. If it is hitting, sitting on a chair doesn't teach about affect/anger regulation, because the student, our child, is alone having just witnessed our own anger at them. If children knew how to manage their impulses before the fight, they wouldn't be in their home corners getting ready for the next round. The objective of teaching children is for them to learn how to do things in the context of others, be it sister, brother or the world of people, not alone by themselves. Affect regulation is not taught when the child runs off to pout by himself or when we push him away to sulk in timeout.
A child learns to have self-control not by abandonment to his own devices but by imitating others who display self-control. This is the great lesson. One stays with the child to teach principles of restraint, not the principle of rejection.
When children misbehave, often it springs from insecurity. The classic example is the child passed off between divorced parents. The acting out at the different domiciles is not the lack of discipline, it is the lack of security. How would you feel if you were uncertain if anyone cared for you? Kids do what kids know how to do. Behavior flows from the need to feel safe, or if insecure they will create incidents that will draw the attention of the parent to the child. Children need attention in order for them to obtain connection. Behaviors are the culmination of events, not the beginning of punishment.
In most sports a timeout is used to talk about the problem or the next play. During a critical moment in the game, the quarterback doesn't trot off the field and become summarily benched with no discussion and then be expected to return to the team and throw a touchdown without knowing the passing routes decided during the timeout.The NBA's use of the timeout is probably the best example for parents. Some are short, like 20 seconds, and the others are longer. Some problems are less serious. But there is both dialogue and refreshing during either version. As in a championship game, the players-kids are often tired; sit them down, give them a rest; teach them their lesson; remind them of the rules; answer questions and ask about their assignment and give a squirt of juice. When the time is up, they will rush out and score the winning basket. Unlike traditional solitary confinement, there is a place for NBA-like timeouts in the home. Just don't make it a penalty.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com